Friday, March 22, 2013

A look at Barbara Garland Polikoff's Her Mother's Secret, set in late 19th-century Chicago

Her Mother's Secret features a 15-year-old heroine, but you don't have to be a teenager to appreciate the detail-rich environment the author creates.  Barbara Garland Polikoff has partly based her latest novel on the life of her "gypsy aunt," a lively woman with bohemian fashion sense who studied and later taught art at Chicago's Hull House.

Perhaps to intertwine her aunt's experiences with well-known events of the late 19th century, the author shifted the plot backward by about 20 years.  She writes with a light, easygoing touch, which should make it comfortable for younger readers to assimilate her story.  Although the historical and cultural backdrops are presented with well-rendered specificity, many of the problems that Sarah and her family deal with are universal.

The Goldmans, as readers learn early on, are Jewish immigrants who fled their Russian shtetl following pogroms.  By 1892, they've settled into their Chicago neighborhood, where Sarah's father Jacob works as a butcher. However, the personal troubles they faced in the old country still cast a long shadow over their lives and their interactions with one another.  This is where the book's title comes from; there's something hidden in her mother Rifke's past that Sarah knows nothing about.

Although she remains close to her father, Sarah struggles with the knowledge that her older sister Fanny is Rifke's favorite.  When Fanny starts dating a young Irishman who runs with a bad crowd, her parents are less than pleased, which unexpectedly puts Sarah on Rifke's good side for a change.  Adults should appreciate how Polikoff refers to Rifke and Jacob by their first names, since this makes them seem more approachable.  The Goldmans undergo difficult times, but their story is warmly told.

Most of the novel covers Sarah's coming of age, her relationships with her parents and siblings, and her exploration of the artistic talents that blossom during her classes at Hull House.  She becomes best friends with an Italian classmate and takes a trip to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition with an amusing young man named Charley.  "How small her parents' restrictions had made her world," she thinks, and readers should enjoy watching as her true personality emerges.

The novel reads in places like a series of interconnected vignettes.  Some important moments are told about  only in retrospect, which may leave readers feeling a little left out.  Overall, though, it presents an entertaining look at Chicago at a vibrant time in its history, as seen through the eyes of a shy young woman who gradually learns where she belongs.

Her Mother's Secret was published by Allium Press of Chicago in 2012 (trade pb, $14.99, 169pp).  A 12-page companion guide with photos, historical background, and discussion questions is available online.  Allium Press is an independent publisher focusing on fiction with a Chicago connection.  Their tagline is "Rescuing Chicago from Capone… one book at a time."

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