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Beyond the pale.




On a warm June night in Toronto, Elana Dykewomon stood on a dusty stage and explained to the audience that her desire in Beyond the Pale had been to write a `plausible lesbian' novel situated in the Pale of Settlement and the turn of the century Ashkenazy diaspora. Then she began to read, and the marvellous Gutke Gurvich, midwife, old world Jewish lesbian, rolled from her lips to my imagination.

The intuitive Gutke is, for me, the core of this acute historical novel, poised so often at the "gates which open in birth and death." Gutke sees quiet visions of the future lives of newborns, Gutke fingers a hidden prayer shawl to subdue her insights, Gutke interrupts two women entangled in the bathhouse where her mother works, and understands that her own desire situates there. Gutke is wise, and her wisdom positions this novel at a satisfying depth, rendering it at an unhurried, nourishing pace.

The activist of this story is Chava Meyer, at whose birth Gutke assists in the opening of the book. The Meyer family of Kishinev is a microcosm of late 19th-century Ashkenazy life, atomized by increasing oppression and the corresponding social movements--Zionist, Bundist, emigrationist--of the time. Chava is the child who leaves for the Goldene Medine, the golden land of America, after a devastating pogrom, travelling from Odessa with cousins on a sea journey whose horrors are deftly depicted. On the lower east side of New York, our heroine enters into the exploitations of a rapidly industrializing, capitalist economy.

"I thought in America you don't have to fight," Chava says to Lena on the journey over. "There is no such country," Lena answers. Labour struggles, language classes, women's organizing, women's love, suddenly the beginning of the century reads, freshly yet harshly, like the end of it.

The intellect behind this novel is kind and careful, thoughtful and generous, both to her characters and her readers. Woman-to-woman sexuality is spoken by those without a language for it, and without sneaking in the vocabulary coined by lesbian feminism. The novel seems to think in Yiddish yet speak in English, reminding me of my father's mother, who, like Chava, left Odessa for North America, a teenager destined for piece work in someone else's golden land.

Plausible lesbians? Yes. Political consciousness? Brimming with it. But for me, the strengths of Beyond the Pale are those of the traditional epic: compelling characters living through crushing forces of history; a point of view that transcends the limitations of the everyday and offers historical sweep; a story that enthralls and surprises; an authorial voice that wraps you completely in another world. And Gutke, positioned at the opening of life, who knows that "Whenever you tell the story of one woman, inside is another."

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Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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