Hilda and Pearl


To Frances, an only child living in McCarthy-era Brooklyn, her mother, Hilda, and her aunt Pearl seem as if they have always been friends. Frances does not question the love between the two women until her father's job as a teacher is threatened by anti-Communism, just as Frances begins to learn about her family's past. Why does Hilda refer to her "first pregnancy," as if Frances wasn't her only child? Whose baby shoes are hidden in Hilda's dresser drawer? Why is there tension ...

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Hilda and Pearl: A Novel

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To Frances, an only child living in McCarthy-era Brooklyn, her mother, Hilda, and her aunt Pearl seem as if they have always been friends. Frances does not question the love between the two women until her father's job as a teacher is threatened by anti-Communism, just as Frances begins to learn about her family's past. Why does Hilda refer to her "first pregnancy," as if Frances wasn't her only child? Whose baby shoes are hidden in Hilda's dresser drawer? Why is there tension when Pearl and her husband come to visit?

The story of a young girl in the fifties and her elders' coming-of-age in the unquiet thirties, this book resonates deeply, revealing in beautiful, clear language the complexities of friendship and loss.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Accomplished poet, novelist Field of Stars and short-story writer Great Wit Mattison adds to her laurels with this quietly suspenseful, psychologically penetrating novel, which is both a perceptive study of adolescence and a dramatic exploration of family relationships. When 11-year-old Frances Levenson finds a pair of baby shoes hidden in her mother Hilda's bureau drawer, she begins to unravel a secret involving her parents, her aunt Pearl and her uncle Mike. Viewed partly through Frances's pre-adolescent consciousness and partly through flashbacks to the early years of the two couples' marriages in the 1930s, the novel also portrays a segment of American society: liberals socialists, Communists who supported the doomed anti-Franco forces in the Spanish Civil War, and who were themselves often victims of the McCarthy witch hunts two decades later. The sons of Jewish immigrants, Nathan, Frances's father, and Mike, his younger brother, are opposites: Nathan is an idealistic Brooklyn high-school English teacher with a burning social conscience; Mike, who has changed his surname to Lewis, is a pragmatic court stenographer contemptuous of Nathan's politics but also cowed by his brother's dignity. A seduction, a baby of disputed paternal parentage and a tragic death mark the shifts in family dynamics that paradoxically bring Hilda and Pearl closer, though one is a victim and makes a noble sacrifice and the other is a taker with magic charm. Mattison has a luminous ability to render a preteen's fantasy life and conversation with her peers, conveying Frances's confusion about adult behavior. But it is in depicting the title characters that Mattison excels, evoking in keenly observed prose the animosities, yearnings for intimacy and currents of sexual energy that run between them. Small fireworks of surprise detonate at intervals in this compelling narrative, related by Mattison with disarming simplicity and economy, and with gripping effect. Feb.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060936938
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/1/2001
  • Edition description: First Perennial Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Meet the Author

Alice Mattison is the award-winning author of four story collections and five novels, including Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn. She teaches fiction in the graduate writing program at Bennington College in Vermont and lives in New Haven, Connecticut.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Hilda said she'd take the plums back to the cottage with her, because if she left them at the lake no one would remember to bring them. They were the tart red plums of July. Frances, who had eaten one a while ago, didn't care whether her mother took them.

"Come on," said Aunt Pearl, who had started quickly up the hill but then turned to wait, watching Frances's mother, who didn't hurry. Aunt Pearl's freckled arm was raised and her hand shielded her eyes. She looked restless to Frances, who was watching from a little way into the water, Aunt Pearl didn't wear a beach jacket, just her blue bathing suit, and when she was ready to leave the beach, all she had to do was walk away, but Hilda put her terrycloth jacket on over her bathing suit, then gathered up her knitting. Next she leaned over for the paper bag of plums, which was on one of the Adirondack chairs. When Hilda leaned over, her beach jacket opened and her breasts looked big. Frances, who was eleven, did not yet have breasts.

Hilda caught up with Aunt Pearl, and Aunt Pearl stretched her hand out: she wanted a plum. Frances knew that she would eat two or three on the way back to the cottage, her free hand under her chin to catch the juice. Now Hilda fed her the first one, reaching up to offer it. Aunt Pearl was tall.

They hadn't suggested that Frances come along. Of course, they were only going to the cottage to change their clothes and start supper. Her mother wanted to eat early because people were coming from one of the other cottages after supper to sing or play cards.

Frances'steenage cousin Simon, Aunt Pearl's son, stood at the edge of the lake in his shoes and socks and trousers and shirt, looking straight ahead at the water, not answering when Uncle Mike shouted at him. "Stupid," said Uncle Mike, and Frances's father, Nathan, who was sitting in an Adirondack chair at the edge of the beach, flinched. Uncle Mike had stopped shouting for a while but now that the women had gone up the hill he began again.

Frances liked sitting on the rock because her feet stayed wet. She liked listening to Uncle Mike too. She didn't mind when he shouted at Simon, though she knew she ought to be angry with him. Mostly she found it interesting, and waited almost eagerly for the next thing he'd say. Her parents would never talk that way. It gave her the edgy, excited feeling that some permission had been granted — to both herself and Simon — though Uncle Mike shouted at him not to do things. She had stayed in the water longer than she would have if Uncle Mike hadn't been criticizing Simon for not going swimming at all.

Simon stood so close to the water that although his shoes looked dry, Frances thought there wasn't room between his shoes and the water for so much as a pine needle. He would not go into the water or even put on a pair of swimming trunks, though his parents had gone to the trouble and expense of buying a bathing suit and bringing it from the city. His family had been at the lake for three days — visiting Frances's family, who stayed for a month — and so far Simon hadn't gone into the water once. It was shameful not to learn to swim, and Simon could barely swim. It was hot, and anyone with sense would want to cool off in the water. Uncle Mike shouted all this at Simon's back.

Years earlier, Frances had been lying in bed one night, supposedly asleep, listening to her parents talk through the slightly opened door. "Mike takes his belt to Simon," her mother had said.

"No," said Nathan. Frances had known what her mother had meant. It was a strange way of talking, to take your belt to someone. It could mean that Uncle Mike carried his belt across the room and gave the belt to Simon, but it didn't. She had wanted to question Simon about this subject, but she never did. She was five years younger than he was, and he was kind to her, but they didn't talk much.

She was facing the shore. When she looked up she saw her mother and aunt, now far along the dirt road that went to the cottages. There were many cottages, and theirs was far away. She knew how her mother and Aunt Pearl would walk: slowly, talking all the time, sometimes giving each other a push if one of them made a joke. They would stop when Aunt Pearl wanted another plum, and Hilda would open the bag and hold it for her, teasing about how much Pearl ate.

Simon was looking out at the lake. Frances thought he was trying to look as if he had something on his mind and hadn't troubled himself to notice who Mike was talking to. At the edge of the beach, near where the grass started, Frances's father turned his hands over and over on the arms of the Adirondack chair.

Nobody but their family was at the lake, even though there were many cottages and it was a hot day. It was after five o'clock, that was one reason, but none of them could figure out any other reasons. She and her parents sometimes talked about what the other people were missing. Frances's father liked the beach the most. He would take a long swim and then sit in the sun, moving his chair as the shade advanced in the afternoon. He said he needed many hours of sun to bake the winter out of him, and Frances pictured him in his classroom at Erasmus Hall High School...

Hilda and Pearl. Copyright © by Alice Mattison. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide


Frances Levenson is an only child living in McCarthy-era Brooklyn. Her mother Hilda and her aunt Pearl seem as if they have always been old friends -- the closeness that joins them together seems impenetrable. In Frances's lonely world of preadolescent fears and betrayal, the trust between the two women is unquestioned.

But when she finds a pair of baby shoes hidden in her mother Hilda's bureau drawer, she begins to unravel a secret involving her parents, her aunt Pearl and her uncle Mike. The questions begin: Why did Hilda distractedly refer to a "first pregnancy" one day? Isn't Frances her only child? Whose scuffed baby shoes are they? Why do her father and uncle argue so much when he and Pearl come to visit? In Hilda and Pearl, Alice Mattison creates a story that is gripping at every turn, one whose setting is so familiar that its inherent tragedy touches deeply. She tells the universal story of friendship -- its hesitant beginnings, tentative advances, and disheartening setbacks -- with quiet sensitivity and understanding. Both the story of a young girl confused by her changing world and the unfolding past of her mother and aunt, Hilda and Pearl resonates deeply, revealing in beautiful, clear language the complexities of friendship and loss. Discussion Questions
  • Compare Frances and Lydia's friendship with Hilda and Pearl's. Is Frances and Lydia's relationship a typical childhood friendship? Will Frances have similar female friendships as her mother and aunt's or will the '60s and '70s have profound effects on her possibilities?
  • How have relationships and expectations between husbands and wives changed sincethe time when Hilda and Pearl took place? How are they the same?
  • Do you think Pearl will ever tell Simon who she thinks his real father is?
  • Pearl and Mike's romance is not particularly romantic. Pearl doesn't want to work at her father's candy store so she gets married instead with very little fanfare around the event. Does Pearl and Mike's future together hold any promise?
  • Discuss the relationships between the mothers and their children in Hilda and Pearl: Pearl and Frances, Hilda and Adam, Mrs. Levenson and her sons, and Frances's friend Lydia and her mother. How much influence do these mothers have over their children?
  • Frances is an observant little girl, on the cusp of adolescence. Will she ever fully understand the complicated relationships of her parents and aunt and uncle? What do you see in her future -- will she become a homemaker like her mother or get caught up in the culture of the '60s and '70s? About the Author: Alice Mattison grew up in Brooklyn and studied at Queens College and Harvard. Her collection of intersecting stories, Men Giving Money, Women Yelling, was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year. She is also the author of Field of Stars, a collection of stories, Great Wits and The Flight of Andy Burns, and a collection of poems, Animals. She has been published in The New Yorker, Glimmer Train, Southern Humanities Review, North American Review, Boulevard, and the Threepenny Review. She resides in New Haven, Connecticut and teaches fiction in the Bennington Writing Seminars, a low-residency Master's program at Bennington College in Vermont.
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