• Review
By – April 3, 2012

From the open­ing scene to the last page, read­ers will be cap­ti­vat­ed by Leela Corman’s sto­ry of twin sis­ters grow­ing up in the tumul­tuous streets of New York’s Low­er East Side. Esther and Fanya, daugh­ters of Russ­ian immi­grants, are lit­tle girls when the book opens in 1909, but their child­hood comes quick­ly to an end as they learn to nav­i­gate their roles in the fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty. Their moth­er is harsh and unyield­ing, con­stant­ly rep­ri­mand­ing the girls in a mix of Yid­dish and bro­ken Eng­lish. Their father is a qui­et dream­er, gen­tle and gen­er­ous with his daugh­ters. A flash­back to his youth in Rus­sia serves to round out his char­ac­ter.

As close as Esther and Fanya are, their paths diverge when Fanya goes to work for Bro­nia, the lady doc­tor” who per­forms ille­gal abor­tions and dis­pens­es birth con­trol. Esther is pulled into a dif­fer­ent direc­tion and, despite her mother’s dis­ap­proval, goes to work for a woman who runs a bur­lesque the­ater and a whore­house. As they mature and maneu­ver their way through all that the gold­en land” has to offer, the sis­ters make heart-wrench­ing choic­es that push them apart. How they con­tend with clash­ing ideals and some­times trag­ic con­se­quences will keep read­ers engaged and wish­ing for a sequel.

Corman’s unique illus­tra­tions do an impres­sive job of evok­ing immi­grant life on the teem­ing streets of New York; they also allow read­ers a peek behind the scenes as the dancers and pros­ti­tutes ply their trade. Text is sparse, but read­ers won’t notice because because the illus­tra­tions tell the sto­ry so effec­tive­ly. A glos­sary of Yid­dish phras­es used through­out the book would have been help­ful, but since the dia­logue flows so smooth­ly read­ers can eas­i­ly deci­pher the mean­ings based on context.

Wendy Was­man is the librar­i­an & archivist at the Cleve­land Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry in Cleve­land, Ohio.

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