From Boston’s North End, Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom: Feisty Fictional Girls (They Could be Someone We Know)

Where does it come from–that drive to persevere, that thing that pushes some people to move forward–sometimes blindly and unwisely, but with a certain fierce bravery we can’t help but admire?

Is it learned?

Is it a trait born in certain individuals–people who may hurt like the rest of us, despair like the rest of us, but for whom giving up just is not an option?

I know that it’s real, although I can’t explain one person’s lack and another person’s abundance.  Can’t explain it, can’t quite name it, but recognize it? For sure.

It’s a quality we know; it’s a quality that made Addie Baum and Emily Shephard seem real.

Addie is the protagonist of The Boston Girl, by Anita Diamant, a Jewish girl in the early 1900’s, the youngest daughter of Eastern European emigres.  Her sister Betty is out of the house and working; her sister Celia, beautiful and terribly shy, works in a  sweatshop and stays at home.  Addie loves school and is allowed to stay there longer than either sister. She dreams of a life lived somewhere/someway other than the just barely-more-than-one-room apartment her parents could afford to rent.

Emily is the protagonist of Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, by Chris Bohjalian. She is the daughter of nuclear generator employees in the current day, in an area of Vermont known as The Northeast Kingdom.  Her father, Bill, is an engineer; Mira, her mother, does public relations. Emily loves to read; she is a great fan of Emily Dickinson. She dreams of a life that offers more, somehow; despite the McMansion she lives in, she feels impoverished.

Where does it come from–that love of words, of rhyme, that appreciation for a well-turned phrase?  From what interior longing does the lust to learn derive? It springs up in the strangest places; it grows, weed-like, in barren concrete with little encouragement.

Addie and Emily both have it.  It makes them, again, seem very real.

Addie’s parents are hostile and angry; her father only happy at his shul.  Her mother? Never happy.  Addie longs for a kind word, a note of recognition, a feeling that her mother sees and appreciates her.

Emily’s parents are drunk.  Emily remembers good times; she has mementoes of happy family days stored in her room.

But now her parents drink.  They hate the place they live; they hate the jobs they do.  Emily gets drunk and goes to school, deliberately, to embarrass her parents.  They are chagrined with her, but her message is not received.

Addie suffers from a lack of nurturing, but we can tell from her narrative–she is answering interview questions for a granddaughter’s research–that she has been a loving care-giver.  Well before she married, she connected deeply with her nephew Eddie.  She is a kind and caring aunt, sister, mother, and grandmother.

Emily misses the loving relationship she had with her parents before they began to drink and fight and ignore her.  She connects deeply with Cameron, a little runaway from a foster home; Emily ‘mothers’ him fiercely with her few resources.

Where does it come from–that urge to nurture, even when the nurturer’s life has been rendered flat and desolate?  Perhaps it is inherent all of us; perhaps life goes on to quench it in some.  Addie and Emily have it, in abundance, reminding us of other nurturers we are lucky enough to share breathing space with.

Despite the disapproval of her family, Addie forges ahead.  She joins the Saturday Club, where she learns about all kinds of things–art and literature, food, modern ideas of freedom and fairness for women and for people of color.  She goes to Rockport Lodge for a whole week without securing her parents’ approval–not even telling them where she is going. It’s a wild and daring thing for a young girl to do in the early days of the 1900’s.

Despite her lack of a plan, Emily breaks loose. Not wanting to have to testify against her parents–especially against her father, whom everyone assumes to have been drunk when the disaster occurred–she runs away from the temporary shelter, steals a bike, and heads to Burlington, where she loses herself among the homeless street kids ebbing and flowing. Emily’s decisions are destructive and crazy, but driven by a kind of misplaced ethics and bravery.

Where does it come from?  Other girls would have stayed at home, yearning maybe, but never daring; would have stayed in the shelter, let themselves be cared for despite the sense of shame.  Other girls, though, would not have had stories written about them; their lives would have been ordinary and unworthy of special notice despite the valor of everyday life.

Addie and Emily have stories worth reading.  The struggle through adolescence, magnified by the hardness of their individual times, is a struggle we can all relate to.

I cringe when the choices they make might lead to disaster; I celebrate with them when real love arrives, when an unexpected reunion takes place. Set a hundred years apart, the stories of Addie and Emily still are vividly immediate. The similarities between the two heroes are striking; the differences are, too.

Where does it come from–the gift of creation, the ability to spread out an imagined life on a page and make me believe in it?  I read Diamant’s and Bohjalian’s books back to back; I was glad I encountered Addie and Emily; glad they made me stay up reading, worried and saddened, celebrating and sighing, long after I should have turned out the light.

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