The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street – November 2014
blog by Cindy Bushey
Nostalgia tends to lend a rosy hue to the past causing people to rue the passing of times when things were simple, better, less complicated. Well, Zion’s readers quickly lost their rose-tinted spectacles when they tackled Susan Jane Gilman’s The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street. A first novel by the National Public Radio commentator and non-fiction author, this book pulls no punches as it carries readers from the early 1900’s to the 1980’s. It follows little Malka Treynovsky as she and her family hastily sneak out of Russia following one of the many harrowing and violent pogroms where they hid from rampaging Cossacks and saw their grandfather beaten to death, ostensibly to travel to relatives in South Africa. Malka’s father, a lying rogue, exchanges their tickets while his wife and Malka’s siblings are suffering from eye infections and quarantined. The United States will be their destination. Malka’s mother is NOT happy and takes her fury and fear out on Malka.
Ms. Gilman paints vivid, accurate pictures of the filth and misery experienced by immigrants traveling in steerage who arrive in a brand new country unable to speak the language or read. She so poignantly describes tenement living in New York City that readers feel the heat in summer and the despair that colors daily life. All the children are expected to contribute to the family income, even Malka at age 5. Life is harsh and unforgiving. Malka’s father abandons the family, and Malka is severely injured in a freak accident with a neighbor’s horse. Malka’s mother effectively abandons her in what passed for a hospital at the time, and our readers are left to contemplate the trauma and cruelty with which this young girl must cope. Sadly, we realize that this was a common scenario in the early 1900’s; the idea of an unfettered childhood is a relatively recent invention.
The horse owner brings Malka to live with his family out of a sense of duty, and she exists on the fringes trying to come to terms with her mental and physical trauma which only worsens when she attends school; children can be mean. Gradually, she absorbs the family business of ice cream and is christened Lillian as she morphs from a Russian Jew into a Catholic semi-Italian. She meets a Jewish immigrant and falls in love, is abandoned once again by the Italian family, and sets out on a life-long search for recognition of her abilities and intelligence, hampered by her disfigured leg and lack of beauty. Zion’s readers applaud her work ethic and resilience, but watch her evolve into a conniving, blindly ambitious woman who can never let go of her compulsion to be the best in this new business of ice cream. Her single-minded pursuit of the almighty dollar and retribution causes her to never achieve normal relationships, especially with her husband or son. As she ages, she alienates almost everyone.
The author captures the historical eras in description and letter-perfect dialogue with Jewish pathos ringing true. Her father reappears perhaps too often as he fleeces Lillian time and time again. Yet, within this bitter, self-absorbed woman still dwells a little girl looking for love and approval from a parent and unable to give that same love and approval to her own family. In the last third of the book, our readers watch as she self-destructs and becomes (as one reader put it) another Leona Helmsley. Some of our readers felt this part of the book became a bit silly with Lillian acting out in almost unbelievable ways. Others felt it was an understandable pattern of self-destruction.
This novel is chock full of interesting historical tidbits and quite a lot of name dropping. We met historical personages, television celebrities, McDonald’s, Haagen-Dazs. We especially enjoyed the clever names Lillian gave to her ice cream concoctions, but who really invented the banana split? Did the U.S. military actually have soft serve ice cream delivered to the troops during World War II and the Korean conflict? The book certainly made us want to eat a scoop of our favorite flavor a little more often than we would normally! It also focused our attention on immigration at the same time immigration policies are making headlines. Another set of rose-colored glasses fell off as we examined the famed “melting pot” and realized that treatment of immigrants has not changed much over the years. We discussed how immigrants pay large amounts to be transported here and are willing to work crushing hours and live in communal circumstances for the chance to improve their standards of living and education. We discussed how childhood trauma can color every aspect of adult life and decisions. This book reminds us, especially at this Thanksgiving holiday, to truly appreciate the opportunities afforded to our families and to give and receive love graciously. As a first novel, this author definitely struck a chord with Zion’s readers of whom seven gave a one-thumb up rating while one remained neutral.