By: David Homel
Format/Source: Paperback courtesy of the publishers via GoodReads First Reads programme
For Bluma Goldberg, the teenaged daughter of a Jewish bootlegger, Prohibition-era Chicago is the furthest place one can get from law and temperance. Her first steps into womanhood are made all the more uncertain by the dangers of her father’s shadowy world. Decades later, her loving son, Bobby Krueger – a man coming off his own share of emotional turmoil – remains mystified by the person he’s known all his life. Who is she really? Fighting through Bluma’s stubborn refusals to cooperate, Bobby pieces together her memories in order to understand the story of the most interesting woman he has ever known.
In The Fledglings, David Homel summons complex personalities and weaves them into a vividly-reconstructed historical landscape, taking readers on a fascinating journey into the inner thoughts and intricate relationships of a remarkable character.
The premise of this novel sounded really interesting–a turbulent family life, an interesting period in which the main character grew up in–so I entered the giveaway contest on GoodReads for the title and won a copy. Plus, the author is Canadian, so that was an added bonus 🙂
The Fledglings tell an interesting tale of Bluma’s childhood, growing up in Prohibition-era Chicago and all of the experiences associated with that time of her life. While Bluma’s experiences is the central story, this book is also pretty generational as it also looks at Bluma’s parents and how they met and came to the United States, and Bluma’s son Joey and his life and experiences. It’s also interesting to note how fractured their lives are; in a way they’re pretty messed up (for lack of a better word), with seemingly broken and uneven relationships with various family members and spouses. Bluma’s mother Rachel in particular was a fascinating example of parental disregard; I want to say she was suffering from depression after moving to North America, hence her distance from her children, but I was side-eyeing her quite a bit later on for some of the things she said and did. The book is not a very positive on the family front, though by Joey’s generation there are attempts to heal and find happiness.
But to make up for the conflicted and broken families is how the characters managed for form strong relationships outside. Bluma’s friendship with her cousin Bella I think helped out immensely. The fledglings in the title referred to the two of them, the songs they sang and the times they shared before their lives and experiences diverged. Bella was a very interesting and vibrant character too, and I wished there were more scenes with her, but she ended up walking a different path in life. Her family life was much more stable than Bluma’s, which provided for some of the experiences that Bluma was missing in her own family, but also provided a contrast for the reader to Bluma’s experiences. Women like Esther from Bluma’s work also made up for some of the discussions and foundations that Bluma was missing in her mother.
What’s also interesting about Bluma herself is, as she tells her story, she doesn’t make any apologies for what happens (or at least, that was the sense I got from her character). Often when we read of elderly characters recounting their life, there’s a sense of regret or longing for something lost, but with Bluma you never get a sense of that. Either she forged her way onward without looking back, or whatever regrets she did have were pushed down that she doesn’t recognise it; by the end of the book, I think it was both, because I did get a sense she did lose something along the way that was hard to express (sorry, this is so vague, but I don’t want to give away the ending here).
Suffice to say from a women’s lit perspective, this book has chock full of interesting details because as Bluma grows up, she learns about the world and the choices that are available for her as a woman. Her parents came from a very conservative society and the woman’s place was very different from the options and upbringing she had in the United States; the reader quickly gains a sense that Bluma is not the type of person to be locked down in any one role. Throughout the novel, there is also a growing amount of interest in her from the boys around her because she is slowly developing into a woman, her features forming, etc. Bluma’s not aware of the effect she has on them and it’s interesting read as some of the women in her life try to help her along the way, give her hints and suggestions, but all in all she ends up on her own, trying to figure out relationships, love, boys, and sex on her own. This is very much a coming-of-age story, touching along many themes and issues along the way.
I do have to note though that while this book was well-written with interesting characters, fantastic conflict with consequences, and good storytelling, there is something that is keeping me from raving about it fully (kind of like what happened with A Tale for the Time Being (review). I think it comes down to a lack of warmth or something to truly illicit my empathy in Bluma and (to a less extent) Joey. Granted, you don’t need to like a character to find them compelling and Bluma is a very compelling character; she’s smart and precocious but life experiences has shaped her to become who she in the present day storyline. So maybe it’s not Bluma or the characters but the situations they found themselves in (or their actions)? I’m not expressing this clearly, but either way there’s something about it that keeps me from liking it more, but it’s nonetheless a thought-provoking read.
I pretty much ripped through this book in one day. I wish there was a bit more time spent on Libby, the disabled older sister of Bluma, because she felt a bit more like a plot device than a fully-realised character in the story, but otherwise it was a very interesting read. I recommend this book for readers of women’s lit, readers who enjoy reading a book with an interesting female lead characters, and readers who enjoy reading about some serious family drama 😉