Monday, July 22, 2013

Beyond the Pale by Elana Dykewomon

Book: Beyond the Pale
Author: Elana Dykewomon
Publisher: Open Road Media

Sometimes a review isn’t so much a review as it is a call to action.

And, as I sat down to organize my thoughts on Beyond the Pale, I was reminded of the remarks by Jewelle Gomez, in her keynote address at the 2012 Golden Crown Literary Society Conference—she challenged that each of us must create our own stories, share our triumphs and tribulations, and leave signs for those who follow in our footsteps.

Her message was universal, and spoke to each of us in our many and varied roles.

We are women of color, feminists, activists, Jews, vegans, alcoholics, physically challenged—the list and the permutations go on ad infinitum. Most of us are lesbians. All of us are women.

In spite of our differences and our similarities, our stories will one day become history for others exactly as we read and learn today from those whom we follow. As individuals, we have the responsibility to question, challenge, and seek change, and as women we are duty bound to learn from our past as we press on for our shared futures.

We are a community.

And we are powerful.

No one knows the price
of comfort,
how much they loved each other
and expected, by jumping,
neither to live nor die
but fly

Elana Dykewomon, from the collection, Nothing Will Be as Sweet as the Taste

In 1997, Elana Dykewomon made history a cautionary tale in her Ferro-Grumley Award- and Lambda Literary Award-winning novel, Beyond the Pale, which tells the stories of two Jewish women living through the dark and inhospitable days of the early 20th century.  

Born into unfortunate circumstances, Gutke Gurvich is taken in by a strong and determined woman whose kindness and caring changes the very course of her life. She is apprenticed to a midwife, and eventually meets her future "husband," a woman who lives her life as a very successful businessman. In 1889, Gutke attends to the birth of Chava Meyer, and foresees a life of struggle, strength, and courage. While still a young girl, Chava is brutally orphaned during the Kishinev pogrom, and emigrates to America with the family of her cousin Rose.

Money is tight, and the two young women begin working in sweatshops at the age of fourteen, as they struggle through the oppression and tragedies befalling Jews and immigrants of their time. They grow to become lovers, and meet up again with Gutke and her husband. The story swells to detail the lives of turn-of-the-century immigrant Jews, from meetings at the historic Henry Street Settlement House on the Lower East Side to the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911.

Beyond the Pale is a richly detailed and lyrical story about women who persevere in spite of the stifling oppression of sexism, anti-Semitism, social inequity, societal taboos, and crushing poverty. The women who populate its pages bridge the past and the future—metaphorically and symbolically. They make choices, ask questions, want more, sacrifice all, and through their courage and dogged determination, leave signs for the rest of us to follow.

The story has the force and power to affect any reader with an interest in the evolution of lesbian relationships, women's history, the Russian Jewish experience, immigration, or the successes and failures of the American labor movement. At times, Ms. Dykewomon’s writing is as poetic and beautiful as the novel is tragic and heart wrenching. Her storyline is intricate and well researched, and it provokes thoughtful consideration, compels sweet joy and devastating sorrow, and renders equal measures of depth and reflection on the problems of women, workers, labor unions, socialism, religion, and politics.

"When we consider our youth, we see only ourselves and the way the world unfolds in front of us. We are full figures walking among cutouts of buildings and people, never knowing exactly what's behind them—we don't care. But gradually we grow smaller and smaller, until we are part of the landscape in which we move, and then we find others all around us, moving, becoming part of time."

Author & Activist
Elana Dykewomon
Beyond the Pale is historical fiction, and it is arguably one of the foremost works of modern lesbian literature. 

I am challenging authors and readers who have not yet discovered this novel to pick it up, read it, and spend some time contemplating and discussing the signs left not only by the characters within the story, but also by Ms. Dykewomon.

"Plums were falling into the river. Seven, eight, nine ... a hundred and one ... all the trees were bent over like old men bowing towards Jerusalem, their branches scraping the ground."

So, this post is no more a review than Beyond the Pale is a sweet love story populated by comfortable formulas and happy endings: they are both about where we, as women and lesbians, came from and where we’re going.

"The train left the dark tunnels under Grand Central Station. I closed my eyes and felt surrounded by gentleness."

Jewelle was right, it's about leaving signs.

Beyond the Pale was originally published in 1997 by the legendary Press Gang Publishing, a feminist printing and publishing collective—the eBook edition was released by Open Road Media in June, 2013. Click here for more information.