The Sweetness

She Writes Press  2014

 

It is always pleasant to read an author who can take you back to the past with minute details that cause you to revive faded memories. Sande Boritz Berger does this for Americans who lived during the 1940s by recalling items such as the monthly magazine Modern Screen, one of the first journals to record the private lives of movie stars, mascara which came in cake form and had to be applied with a wet brush, and cut glass doorknobs. She uses these touches to set the scene for life in a residential middle class section of Brooklyn as well as for contrast of the superficial lives of Americans who were untouched (or thought they were) by World War II and those who terrifyingly lived through it in Poland.

Berger tells the story of two girls, Mira, a teen living in a large house on Avenue T in Brooklyn and Rosha, a ten-year-old, living in the basement of a stranger’s house in Poland. These two are cousins who have never met. And the suspense leading up to when their lives will intersect is kept up throughout the book.

The description of Mira’s thoughts and activities in the ‘40s is precise and alive. Her relationships to her parents, her brother, her best friend, Faye, and household help are portrayed in such a way, it is almost like a memoir. Her love-hate relationship with her father as she works for him at Kane Knitting (Kane changed from Kaminsky), and gradually gains some control at work, is relayed almost autobiographically. And her jealousy of her best friend, Faye, who goes off to Hollywood to become a fashion designer which is what Mira wanted to do before her father envel¬≠oped her in his factory, has a truthful quality.

Simultaneously, Rosha’s story of a girl whose father thrust her into the arms of a non-Jewish woman, known as Mrs. Juraska, a candle-maker and begged her to take care of his daughter as he was in the midst of a roundup of Jews being taken to a concentra¬≠tion camp, is told. But Rosha’s feelings about being thrown into a strange home so suddenly without saying goodbye to her parents does not have the emotional impact of the Brooklyn story.

Apart from depicting the behavioral characteristics of Rosha, who refuses to eat or talk during her first month living in the basement of this family’s home, little is given about her inner struggle. Is she angry at her father? Is she curious about the whereabouts of her beloved “Bubbe?” Is she tortured by memories of her pleasant former life with her family? We are not privileged to know. We are left to assume these things. And Rosha remains optimistic in the face of the mean teasings of Victor, a young boy in the Juraska household who hates her entry into his life as it takes his father’s attention away from him, and in the dreariness of her solitary life in a cold basement.

She spends her time making up scenarios to playact with the young daughter of the household when Sophie is allowed to visit or imagining her welcome in America when she finally will meet her cousin, Mira.

The book ends when Rosha arrives in America and her arrival helps to heal all the various sufferings and conflicts her American relatives were undergoing. The love they feel for her unites them. And so the two stories end happily.

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Discussion Questions

Courtesy of Sande Boritz Berger

  1. In the first chapter of The Sweetness we are introduced to young Rosha Kaninsky who notices signs of impending doom in Vilna. What were some of the early hints that things were about to change for her family? How does the child display her fears?

  2. When we meet Mira Kane for the first time, she, too, exhibits a sense of anxiety and yet she is focused on her fashion designs and career. Is this how she deals with her concerns?

  3. Charlie Kane’s survivor guilt is an ongoing theme in The Sweetness. How would you describe his character, and what besides his guilt, do you think drove him to make many of his decisions?

  4. How would you compare the character Avram Juraska to Charlie Kane? As fathers and husbands, how are they alike and dissimilar?

  5. There’s a quote from the Talmud that says: when you save one life, it is as though you have saved the entire world. What do you think creates that the kind of selflessness as shown by Marta, the candle maker? Do you believe there are people like her in the world today? Does she remind you of any other literary characters?

  6. Each immigrant experience is uniquely different and yet when it comes to the younger generation and first generation Americans, often the struggles are similar. Do you think this is a problem in families today? Where do you see this most prevalent?

  7. Practically all of the women in The Sweetness go through tremendous upheaval and change. Who was your favorite female character and why?

  8. Discuss the culmination of both Mira’s and Rosha’s journey. What do you envision for each of their futures? What would you like to see happen?





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