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The Grasinski Girls: The Choices They Had and the Choices They Made.

The Grasinski Girls: The Choices They Had and the Choices They Made. By Mary Patrice Erdmans (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004. 290 pp.).

Sociologist Mary Patrice Erdmans wrote a book which is gutsy, honest, innovative, and controversial. The book focuses on the lives of six women, who are white Roman Catholic Polish Americans of working class background. The women were born in the 1920 and 1930s; one of them is Erdmans' mother, others are her aunts. The author conducted extensive interviews with each of the women over a period of four years and the book is based on those interviews.

The book is divided into three parts, each with a different theme, which highlight the life stories of particular Grasinski Girls. In part I, "Migrations and Generations" the author provides background information on the family history and genealogy, as well as a transcript of Fran Grasinski's recollections of the Great Depression. The second chapter of Part I analyzes the ethnicity of the women. Part II "Choices Given, Choices Made," focuses on the career choices of three of the women, which included entering the convent, marriage and full time motherhood, as well as pursuit of education in adulthood. Again, the themes are illustrated by fragments of interview transcripts with Nadine, Angela Helen, and Mary Marcelia. Part III "Learning to Sing" aims at explaining issues of agency and what the author terms "kitchen table resistance" in the lives of the women, and underscores the significance of faith in their lives. It includes an interview with Caroline Clarice. The book's Conclusion, entitled "A Grasinski Granddaughter," seeks to compare and contrast opportunities and choices of the author and her female family members from the older generation.

Both in the Introduction and in the Appendix, Erdmans devotes much effort to carefully explaining her methodology, perhaps anticipating that her decisions if left unaddressed might be considered questionable. The three issues that make Erdmans' book unusual include a small sample of interviewees; close relationships the author had with them, which might compromise her objectivity as a researcher; and their active participation in the editing of the transcripts as well as the manuscript. Erdmans strongly and patiently defends her decisions of using life stories as methodology and placing them at the intersection of history and biography. Erdmans insists that although the women were indeed allowed to construct their narratives, the question why they did it in the way they did remains a valid one.

The Grasinski Girls' self-portrait is positive; they claim to have led happy lives, satisfied with being women within the private sphere of family and faith. They exude a strong sense of self-worth, are comfortable with their ethnicity, and take seriously values that are generally counterpoised to those of competition and domination, which are prevalent in the public sphere and internalized by younger feminists. If they do resist, it is "kitchen table resistance" which allows them to refuse to see themselves as victimized, inferior or powerless, but does not threaten their relationships with others. The sources of their strength are faith, which requires agency and denies self-pity; and family, which gives them the continuity and support of female networks. Although they talk about the men in their lives, Erdmans makes sure that the focus is strongly fixed on their own experiences, with the exclusion of the male point of view. The author analyzes particular themes in their stories by placing them in the larger context of feminist theory, effectively returning often overlooked experiences of white ethnic women into the fold of feminist studies.

Perhaps the strongest and most convincing theme of the book relates to the ethnicity of the Grasinski Girls, which the author explores both in a separate chapter and in relation to the question of faith. What does ethnicity mean to third- and fourth-generation women of European ancestry, asks Erdmans after noticing the sisters' confusion about their lineage. The answers she uncovers are most enlightening and destined to become a classic among scholars of immigration and ethnicity. Grasinski women seem to be very comfortable with their Polish-American identity. They feel unthreatened by the viciousness of Polish jokes and can't recall any serious instances of prejudice or discrimination. They are clear in their identity as white, and although they are sometimes perplexed by their ethnicity when it comes to defining it, they certainly are not confounded in "doing it," while they follow and pass on attitudes and beliefs, as well as activities and recipes, inherited from their mother and grandmothers. Although they do not speak Polish, do not belong to Polish organizations, or know much about Poland's history or contemporary issues, in the words of Erdmans they live "lives of undeclared Polishness" (p. 66). The roots of this Polishness are not in Poland, however, but in Hilliards and Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the Polish-American communities in which they grew up, and in the traditions of the Roman Catholic church. The intersection between ethnicity and faith is particularly strong, as two of the Grasinski women chose to enter the convent of Felician sisters, a Polish-American order active as teachers in ethnic communities.

On the other hand the issue of class in the lives of the Grasinski Girls is much more questionable. Although they grew up in a working class family, all but one married into middle class and describe themselves as middle class. They object to being portrayed as uneducated or lacking sophistication in speech. Erdmans' insistence that "their class background shaped their choices and their dispositions" (p. 16), seems forced, and particularly so in the light of her general acceptance of her interviewees' right to define and present themselves as they see fit.

The life stories of the Grasinski sisters differ significantly from that of the author, who remains an important character throughout this intensly personal book, struggling to make sense of the world the women had created for themselves and the choices they made. Erdmans is honest and gutsy, when she reveals her own feelings about faith, motherhood, feminism, and the pressures of the tug-and-tow of the private and public in her own life. This intimate level of her involvement in the process of analysis is perhaps what makes The Grasinski Girls most unique; while it does not detract from the solid scholarly value of the book, it renders it highly readable and definitely appealing to an audience wider than scholarly circles. Erdmans' language is vivid and passionate, lyrical at times, and always very engaging. Family photos scattered throughout the book add "real life" quality to the text.

The fifth volume in the Ohio University Press Polish and Polish-American Studies Series, The Grasinski Girls is a riveting read, highly recommended to scholars and the broader reading public alike.

Anna D. Jaroszynska-Kirchmann

Eastern Connecticut State University
COPYRIGHT 2006 Journal of Social History
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Author:Jaroszynska-Kirchmann, Anna D.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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