By: Pamela Johnson
Researching her latest novel, The Boston Girl, Anita Diamant poured over fashion photographs from the early 1900’s: She surveyed image after image of women in trippingly long dresses, cinched tightly at the waist. They helped the author understand the restrictive world of her protagonist, Addie Baum, who grew up in an era when women were expected to marry, become mothers, and then putter around the house. But Addie was part of a world of change; it included looser, shorter dresses (and even pants!), enabling her to take bigger strides into the world.
At the book’s open, Addie is 85 and telling the story of her girlhood in Boston to a 22-year-old granddaughter. The voice feels like a breezy oral history.
Diamant’s foundational stone for the novel came from a place roughly 40 miles northeast of Boston along the coast.
“I discovered a placed called Rockport Lodge, which is in Rockport, Massachusetts, where I vacation,” she says. “It was founded in 1906—a kind of Fresh Air fund vacation place for girls with very limited resources. It was part of the progressive movement era programming for girls who were young, not married and working.”
‘Slowly Addie became the voice of the book, the throughline, and I gave the book to her.’
For a week every summer, girls enjoyed days away from family and arduous work lives to bask in each other’s company, stay up late, or hike a trail.
“I created characters who went to the lodge,” says Diamant, “and as is my wont, a group of friends emerges. The bunch Addie falls in with is interdenominational, historically accurate to the North End of the time, with Italians and Jews and some Irish girls. Slowly Addie became the voice of the book, the through-line and I gave the book to her.”
And to Boston, as well.
To meet The Boston Girl is to meet the city she grew up in, peering just over her shoulder. Milestones of her tale are set in and around Beantown, from Paul Revere Pottery, to the famous Swan Boats in the Garden, to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. As Addie comes of age, the women’s movement gathers force, spilling out of brownstones and tenements and into the work world, from the garment industry to libraries to secretarial jobs, and into post-secondary education at Simmons College and the Portia Law School for Women.
‘Addie spends a short chapter of her life there, and it opens up the world to her.’
Boston, it should be noted, is Diamant’s adopted city. Her earliest roots were set down in Newark, New Jersey, and then at 12, her family migrated west to Denver. But her undergraduate and graduate years took her east again, first to St. Louis, and then to Binghamton, New York, and finally Boston, where she took a job as a journalist 40 years ago.
“The early Boston newspaper scene was incredibly vibrant,” Diamant says, referring to her research. “The Boston Transcript was one such place. Addie spends a short chapter of her life there, and it opens up the world to her.
“My first real job [at the Boston Phoenix] was answering the phone for an editor, writing stories and handing them in over the transom… but the differences between Addie’s experience in a newsroom and mine are vast. I didn’t have to put up with the danger posed by her colleagues; the world changed so profoundly between 1921 and 1980,” Diamant says.
About 35 years ago, she sought a new challenge and added long-form, non-fiction work to journalism, and eventually wrote six guides to contemporary Jewish life, from birth to death and mourning. In the mid-90s, however, she decided to try writing fiction and wrote the novel that has become her most popular work, so far: The Red Tent (1997), a first-person story told by the Bible’s Dinah, daughter of Jacob and sister of Joseph, who is mentioned only briefly in Genesis, but becomes fully fleshed out in Diamant’s work. The title refers to the place where women of Jacob's tribe go while menstruating or giving birth; it’s also where they find mutual support and encouragement from their mothers, sisters and aunts—a theme of Diamant’s books.
“When people say, ‘I read your book,’ I know which one they mean. But I let them know, I’ve written some other fiction, too.”
“I was very lucky,” Diamant recalls of her New York Times bestselling first novel. Its reception and residuals made it such that, “I could continue to write fiction.” Optioned on and off for years, Red Tent was finally made into a Lifetime TV movie and shown in December 2014.
“When people say, ‘I read your book,’ I know which one they mean,” she says, adding, “I will always be grateful for the success of it.” But she lets fans know, “I’ve written some other fiction, too.” To date, she’s the author of more than a dozen books.
Recently Diamant was set to travel to support The Boston Girl, with trips to Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Dallas, Florida and Phoenix on tap. She also scheduled some breaks in between to go home and recharge.
“People come to readings and apologize for asking me to sign five books, but I’m so grateful to them. A book doesn’t come to life until there are readers,” she says, adding, “That means everything to me.”
‘Both of my parents were union members: It’s in my DNA to be in a union.’
Diamant says that rewriting helps her refine the voices and smooth out a novel’s plot; feedback from her writing group also helps toggle the words into place. “The three of us have been together for a long time,” she says. “We meet on occasion … when we need each other. These are people I trust completely; I take what they say very close to heart.”
The author joined the NWU 10 or 15 year ago. “Both of my parents were union members,” she remembers. “My father was a typographer, and my mother was in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). It’s sort of in my DNA to be a union member. Writers need to do whatever we can to work together to better our lot. No one else is going to do it for us.”
Anita Diamant photo courtesy: Gretje Fergeson