For many children of immigrant families in America, memory lane bears a close resemblance to the street Kate Simon grew up on: "a row of five-story tenements that ended at a hat factory. To the north . . . a bitter ugliness of high walls of big stones that held a terminal point and service barns of El trains . . . Across from the factory were a garage and the Italian frame houses." And inside these houses, a wealth of Jewish, Italian, and other European families who, in Simon's memoir of her Bronx neighborhood after World War I, come alive as carefully crafted as characters from a novel, as familiar as our parents, our grandparents, ourselves.
"Bronx Primitive" focuses on a few years of Simon's late childhood and brings her to adolescence. It takes place in the 1920s, an era of flappers, Prohibition, Calvin Coolidge and Charles Lindbergh, yet there is almost no sense of what went on in the wider world at the time. Simon does not look back from an adult's perspective. She uses a child's voice and point of view, and so shows what a child saw: a small slice of neighborhood, its language and customs still embedded in Europe; women who don't learn English or leave their homes; men whose larger worlds encompass only the factory and the Workmen's Circles; and kids on their way to assimilation but still held firmly in their parents' orbits.
She describes in remarkable detail not only major events in any child's life--the anxiety surrounding the birth of a sister, the death of another child--but the richness and rituals of daily living: children's games, a vacation on Coney Island, the rhythms of family fights, holidays, girls singing Irving Berlin songs on the stoop while embroidering dish towels, visits of the doctor who performed safe abortions for the immigrant women.
Even the most ordinary happenings contain a kind of poetry. On hot summer nights, families would sleep on the tenement roof, "when it became a place of dark figures dragging white sheets that billowed like sails and waves as they sank on spreads of newspaper. The sleepy children were put down to curl on each other, fitting like sections of orange. At one side of the pale patches of sheet the fathers talked quietly, while the mothers sat whispering on the other side. From the factory at the end of the row, dye vat vapors stained the thin, smoky dark of the summer night."
Neighbors have the vitality and eccentricity of characters in Latin American fiction. There is childless Mrs. Haskell who waits on her sofa, in a long white nightgown and oxford shoes from Macy's, for the end of the world; Mr. Roth, who sews all day in a derby hat and discusses the mysteries of the cabala; or the Hermans, who eat the same thing, the same way, every day:
"Their father arrived carrying two paper bags, one full of large rolls, the other wrapped around a headless chicken, eviscerated but still feathered. Without a greeting, he put the bags on the kitchen table, took off his cap and coat, and put a record of cantorial music on the Victrola . . . Fanny set herself firmly, purposefully, on a kitchen chair, and tucking the chicken into her lap began to pluck it with impassioned speed, her thin arm like a fast piston. The feathers soared up and spiraled down . . . little pinfeathers danced toward the sink where they settled, quivering like winged dandelion seeds."
Simon covers topics that have been written about before--the immigrant experience, street life in New York, adolescence emerging in a cultural mixture of old and new--but she approaches them with a clear eye in two senses. She is both strongly visual and vivid in re-creating scenes and people, and uncompromisingly straightforward in assessing them. She makes the era attractive because her style is lively, humorous, tough, and not sentimental or nostalgic.
For example, she considers marriage and families, contrasting them with what the movies taught: "We learned how regal mothers were and how stately fathers, and of course we learned about Love, a very foreign country like maybe China or Connecticut. It was smooth and slinky, it shone and rustled . . . From what I could see, and I searched, there was no Love on the block, nor even its fairy-tale end, Marriage. We had only Being Married, and that included the kids . . ." And the kids had to endure mothers more likely to say "Get out of my way" than "Run off and play, darlings," as characters in the movies said, and irritable, domineering, undemonstrative fathers who lectured and issued commands.
Simon's relationship with her father is one of the most interesting in the book. Her anger and frustration at his self-centeredness, inflexibility, and desire to control come through forcefully despite the passage of time. In particular, she describes his dream of having her become a concert pianist, and he her impresario, not out of love but a vision of grandeur for himself. And she mentions the money he lavished on relatives he brought from Europe, while denying it to his family.
The strength of Simon's feelings for these people after more than 50 years is striking. The very qualities that made them difficult to live with, such as stubbornness, superstition and adherence to restrictive traditions--the hardness of lives that could make them hard personally--give them a resilience and immediacy when they are characters on a page. Perhaps this is why a book like "Bronx Primitive" is so involving, tapping as it does the energy of people in cultural transition.