Modern Girls, a novel about a mother and daughter who find themselves in a family way in the 1930s New York, could easily have been yet another feel-good story where the heroine makes the right decision after a bit of hand-wringing, and all is well. But life is messy, and choices are rarely black-and-white. Thankfully, Jennifer Brown’s book does a good job of reflecting that.
Nineteen-year-old Dottie works as a bookkeeper and is engaged to Abe, but falls pregnant in August of 1935 after a careless night at Camp Eden, an upstate Jewish youth retreat. That same month, her 42-year-old mother Rose, who thought her childbearing years were behind her, finds herself in a similar situation. Not only is Rose done having children, she wants to actively return to the socialist cause to fight for workers’ rights, which she had done in tsarist Russia in her youth, but had to give up in America to raise a family. As both women grapple with their respective predicaments, one option after another fails, leading to a twist that may or may not satisfy, depending on one’s views on this sensitive matter.
But what it undoubtedly shows is that reproductive decisions, then as now, are complex and far-reaching, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. It also demonstrates how the consequences of the decision to bring a child into the world – or not to do so – are borne disproportionately by women. For Dottie, it means the end of her dream of a life together with Abe, and of going to college to become an accountant. For Rose, it threatens to hold her back – yet again – from the revolutionary cause she had deeply cared about all her life.
Meanwhile, abortion, in the year 1935, was a procedure that put a woman at a grave risk to her health and life. And, because it was criminalized, it was accompanied by a significant dose of fear and humiliation. It is something worth keeping in mind in the 21st century, when access to safe reproductive healthcare comes again under threat.
While the story centers on the personal lives of the two protagonists, the larger historical context is not absent from it, and at times it rings eerily relevant. In 1935, Europe is hurtling down the path to its most devastating war, and the signs – in the form of a growing persecution of the Jews – are everywhere, but many in America (including some Jews) choose to ignore them. Dottie and Rose’s family are just as divided on the nature and urgency of the threat as the rest of the society. In one poignant moment, a discussion of the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 that implemented severe quotas on Jewish immigration to the U.S. reminds us that controversies surrounding refugees and asylum seekers are nothing new. It also allows us, through the benefit of hindsight, to see the possible consequences of turning our backs on those who flee hate and persecution.
Modern Girls is a well-executed story that manages to skirt stereotypes and avoid facile judgements. Instead, it shines a light – through the parallel, first-person narration of the two women – on issues of generational transition, cultural assimilation, female sexuality, the role of religion and traditions, and the meaning of the American dream. Most of all, it reminds us that women’s desires and dilemmas regarding family, educational opportunities and career are not the product of the 1960s. They had existed for decades before the sexual revolution, and it is good to see writing that reflects that.