From the Red Tent to the Tenement
Anita Diamant’s novel looks at friendship and feminism in the early 1900s.
by Meredith Jacobs
In her novel The Boston Girl (Scribner), Anita Diamant, author of The Red Tent, brings us the story of Addie, who at 85 shares her life story with her twenty-two-year-old granddaughter. Through Addie’s warm, wise and wickedly funny words, we learn what it was like for a young girl, born to immigrant parents, to come of age in America post-World War I. Her lifelong friendships with the “Saturday Club Girls,” Filomena and Gussie, her sisters, the tragic and desperately sad Celia and the strong and inspiring Betty, and her beloved husband, Aaron, all influence her life and the woman she ultimately becomes.
We talked to Diamant about writing The Boston Girl and what it’s like to see her groundbreaking novel The Red Tent reimagined on the small screen in a Lifetime miniseries.
I really loved Addie. Is she inspired by your grandmother?
AD: No, not my grandmother. As usual, I started in a different place and wound up with Addie. She came to me along the way. There is a real place called Rockport Lodge, [a retreat center] where women of limited means could go [early in the 20th century]. I watched it crumble. It was a vestige of a different time. The land was sold and the money was given to a domestic abuse program—so it continues to live on in a different way. I originally planned to write a novel about the lodge, did research on it and found myself in a very progressive era for women. Organizations were being founded to help women and girls. There was even a law school that only women went to. I learned all of this amazing history and wanted to write a book about this era and place the book in Rockport Lodge. I sketched out the characters—all of whom are in Boston Girl, but Addie emerged as the strongest; it became her story.
I didn’t really plot it out. All of my books tell a historical story from a very close-up, not global, perspective. How did an American girl live through World War I? I think, through Addie, I gave an accurate portrayal of that life.
I found it so hard to like Mameh, Addie’s mother. I kept hoping she would in some way be redeemed.
AD: Mameh was a very distressed human being. She suffered a lot of losses. She was afraid. She had a daughter who was clinically depressed. She lost three children. Not everyone bounces back. I think Mameh was damaged and didn’t have the internal resources to recover.
Was there a real Saturday Evening Club?
AD: Yes, Saturday Evening Girls was a club in the North End of Boston at the Bennet Street Settlement house. Now it’s an Italian neighborhood; then it was a mixed community. It was one of the worst tenements—death, disease… horrible. It’s where Edith Guerrier (Chevalier in the book) and Edith Brown (Green in book) created the library clubs for the older girls. They taught girls how to take responsibility and stand up in front of an audience and go out into the world. Addie stumbles into the world. Edith Chevalier sees something in her and the world opens up to her. There she meets Gussie, who goes to law school, and Filomena. Women’s friendships unite all my books. And these are cross cultural—I wanted people from different backgrounds. All immigrants. They are all trying to be fulfilled. Things were changing. This is about becoming an American
Why do you have the granddaughter become a rabbi?
AD: It shows how far women came in that century—from women not being able to say Kaddish to women becoming rabbis and running congregations.
Can you talk about the newspaper? Why did Addie go to work for the paper?
AD: I needed for her to make a leap forward in her life. She was stuck as a secretary. She wanted to go to college. The columnist shows up and inspires her. For a while I wondered what her career would be. I thought a writer—but that isn’t where she ends up. The wonderful thing about being a journalist is it takes you into worlds you wouldn’t normally have access to. So her world gets widened. And she finds women who are her mentors.
I also think that in the process, she learns through the difficulties of the world and even more through Aaron and that leads to social work. Simmons was the first school with a social work program. Social work was a new career—all of this was just being invented. These new fields all gave women entry: telephone operators, typists, clerks in department stores. All that was new. This is where women were hired.
What advice would you give a granddaughter wanting to ask her grandmother about her life?
AD: I don’t want to idealize this. In a lot of families, that’s not easy. There are disappointments on both sides. People don’t understand each other. Not all grandmothers are so forthcoming and charming. Addie is a social worker—very self-aware. Not everyone likes to talk with grandchildren about pain.
I don’t want to romanticize difficult questions. It’s good to ask if you can but some children are afraid of their grandparents. Addie shared some difficult stuff, but how much do you want to hear about your grandmother’s sex life? She’s a wise guy—she has a sense of humor. Yes, we should ask, but we shouldn’t be disappointed if it doesn’t work.
How was the process of writing Boston Girl different from writing Red Tent?
AD: I was writing Red Tent in the mid-‘90s. It was published 17 years ago. The internet was worthless. I spent a lot of time in libraries. A lot was missing—there were a lot of holes. So I invented stuff—stuff that was historically possible. So no chickens, but goats. I tried to make it historically possible. For Boston Girl, there’s a lot of information. And I live in Boston so I interviewed people. There’s so much more to know and so much more that’s knowable. What they [the books] have in common is that they are both told in the first person by the main character—they are tied together in the narrator voice.
Your book, The Red Tent, was made into a mini-series that will air on Lifetime. December 7 and 8 . Did the characters and backdrop look as you had envisioned?
AD: There’s no way a movie can meet with what I envisioned. I sold the rights. I didn’t have anything to do with the movie. That’s how it goes and I’m okay with that. What I’m curious about is what the audience will think.
I’m not going to review the movie. I think they made it with passion and respect. It’s a different vision from mine but it remains a celebration of women’s wisdom and strength—it does communicate that very strongly.
I’m sure some people will be disappointed, but it will also introduce people to the book or remind them of the book. It gets the message of women’s strength even in biblical times to a big audience and I’m happy about that.
The movie is a different way of telling the story. It’s all storytelling. That’s good. Storytelling makes us human and stretches the imagination. It’s retelling the story. I’m so honored. So honored that someone fell in love with the story to tell the story the way they saw it.
(Originally published in winter 2014.)