There have been countless novels over the years about the rampant wave of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe to the United States during the 19th and early 20th century. So many, in fact, that it’s almost difficult to imagine a story on the subject that feels unique. Anna Solomon’s fascinating debut, about a mail-order bride sent to join her Orthodox husband in rural South Dakota, is a rare, stunning exception.

Minna Losk is a 16-year-old orphan living in 1880s Odessa when she answers an ad from a Russian-American man looking for a wife. She, like so many others, dreams of an urban, cosmopolitan life and of opportunities unheard of for a Jew in Cossack-ridden Russia. But when Minna arrives, she is whisked off not to New York or Chicago but “Sodokota,” a barren, desolate territory far from civilization. Minna’s betrothed, too, is not what she expects, but rather, a rigidly religious man more than twice her age, with two teenaged sons in tow. With literally nowhere else to turn, Minna must learn to make this fledgling family work under the most trying circumstances.

The Little Bride is a riveting portrait of a community not often documented in history.  Shunned both by their mother country and by the American Jews who had already assimilated into secular life, the first wave of Eastern European Jews who immigrated in the mid-19th century were often forcibly sent to the Great Plains—a narrative now largely eclipsed by the massive wave of immigration that followed shortly after. But this is far more than just a different twist on the same story. Solomon’s prose is bold and often gritty, and she creates complicated, surprising characters that completely defy expectations, displaying the depths of the author’s careful research and rich imagination. 

Rebecca Shapiro writes from Brooklyn.

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