Beyond the Pale

Beyond the Pale

19420326 “Beyond the Pale ” by Elana Dykewomon
Publisher’s Synopsis: Elana Dykewomon’s Lambda Award-winning novel Beyond the Pale announces itself to the world with an infant’s scream–“a new voice, a tiny shofar announcing its own first year.” The midwife attending this birth is Gutke Gurvich, a half-Jew with different colored eyes and a gift for seeing into the spirit world. Beyond the Pale is Gutke’s story, detailing her odyssey from a Russian shtetl to a comfortable Manhattan brownstone. But, as Dykewomon puts it, “Whenever you tell the story of one woman, inside is another,” and this rich, multilayered novel is also the story of Chava Meyer, the baby girl Gutke delivered that day, as well as the story of the important women in both of their lives: mothers, sisters, neighbors, lovers, friends. After seeing her mother raped and killed during a particularly vicious pogrom in her native village of Kishinev, Chava immigrates to America. There, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, both she and Gutke find themselves involved in the nascent labor union and suffrage movements. Dykewomon has clearly done her research here, and Beyond the Pale presents a beautifully detailed account of life among turn-of-the-century immigrant Jews, from classes at the Henry Street Settlement House to the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Through the lens of several lesbians’ lives, Dykewomon draws a portrait of an entire Diasporan community living through the terror and uncertainties of both Russian progroms and life in the New World.

*****

5 out of 5 stars

This book is amazing. Written as historical fiction, this is a perfect capture of the last turn-of-the-century working class environment. It also is a story that touches on so many different topics: racism, sexism, feminism, migration, and lesbian/transgender issues.

It’s a difficult book to review. I loved it, yes, but it was not an easy read. The story revolves around Russian Jews and the treatment and emmigration of two families to America. My own knowledge of Judaism is limited; I live in an area that is predominantly Jewish and have celebrated Passover and Hanukkah with friends and that’s about it. My understanding of Yiddish is non-existent and I had trouble with some of the words in the story but was able to muddle through.

I found it fascinating, learning about the strict gender roles and beliefs held in that period in time. Dykewomon paints a very vivid picture when describing the pogroms, and the East Side tenements where our characters live. The story starts with Gutke, born in Russia and thought to be touched by Lilith as she has two different colored eyes. Trained to be a midwife, she makes her way to America on the arm of her husband, Dovid, who is a transman of that time. One of the children she delivers before leaving Russia is Chava, and the two women’s stories intertwine throughout the rest of the book.

Chava is orphaned when a pogrom breaks out in her village. She makes her way to America with her extended family and her cousin, Rose. The state of the ships, the filth in the steerage is detailed and vivid as well as the fear in passing through Ellis Island. Chava and her family wind up in a slum on the East Side, and are able to find factory work to survive.

The factories are sweatshops that Chava tries to rise above by joining labor organization and the suffragette movement and becomes an activist in her own right.

And she falls in love with her cousin, Rose, who shares her bed every night.

Tackling such difficult subjects such as the Shirtwaist Fire, and the sweatshops, the pain of hidden love, and the bravery of the characters in the book, I feel this is a must read for anyone who enjoys historical fiction as well as anyone who wants a peek into lesbian history.

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2 thoughts on “Beyond the Pale

  1. Read it a while back and I agree, it is a very good book. I’m Jewish and was raised in NYC so it all seemed very familiar to me – my grandmother came over from Poland as a child in the early 1900’s.

    Liked by 1 person

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