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How can you weave a life from fairy tales? Set in the Minneapolis and Saint Paul during the First World War, Mary Sharratt's debut novel is the story of a young German immigrant experiencing her spiritual and sexual awakening.
As the poet Mandy Sivers says, Summit Avenue is A book about Woman and the tremendous, multiplied hurdles and barriers which women had to overcome as immigrants. This turbulent tale, while apparently telling of a lesbian relationship, is talking even more ...
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How can you weave a life from fairy tales? Set in the Minneapolis and Saint Paul during the First World War, Mary Sharratt's debut novel is the story of a young German immigrant experiencing her spiritual and sexual awakening.
As the poet Mandy Sivers says, Summit Avenue is A book about Woman and the tremendous, multiplied hurdles and barriers which women had to overcome as immigrants. This turbulent tale, while apparently telling of a lesbian relationship, is talking even more about the flight back into the mythic depths of womanhood-the old, pre-Christian, woman-centered community.
When Kathrin's mother dies, Kathrin immigrates to America where she is reunited with her cousin Lotte and begins work at a mill sewing flour bags. Soon Kathrin meets the Jeliniks, the owners of a small bookstore. While Jan, a compassionate, elderly man, loves his bookstore, his nephew John would rather see it reopened as something more profitable, a testament to the American dream of prosperity for which he so desperately hungers. Jan introduces Kathrin to Violet Waverly, who offers Kathrin a job typing and translating a book of fairy tales that her husband was compiling before he died. Violet invites Kathrin to live with her in her mansion on Summit Avenue, the richest neighborhood in Saint Paul. Both women, left wounded and alone in different circumstances, find increasing solace and warmth in each other.
Although Violet can offer Kathrin love, compassion, and a glimpse of the dizzying heights of wealthy upper-class grandeur, she cannot fully disguise the painful secrets hiding behind the glitter. As Kathrin comes closer to the heart of Violet's mysterious past, she discovers that life, like a fairy tale, is often based on illusion.
Mary Sharratt's fiction has appeared in Hurricane Alice, International Quarterly, The Long Story, American Writing, Lynx Eye, Evergreen Chronicles, and Emrys Journal. She is the editor and publisher of the literary journal Another Country. Originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, Sharratt currently lives in Grafing, Germany, where she teaches creative writing and coordinates the Munich Writers Workshop. This is her first novel.
* I was born in a forest even darker and more tangled than this one—in the Schwarzwald with its valleys deep as scars. My valley was so steep and narrow, we called it the Höllental, valley of hell. Enclosed by precipitous hills, it got very little sunlight. Bruised clouds shrouded the sun the morning in November, 1911, when I closed the coffin lid on my mother's face. I had just turned sixteen.
Lashing rain had turned the village graveyard into a quagmire. I stared down the hole they were lowering my mother into. A gash in the earth full of black water. I wondered if the coffin would leak, if the mud would stain the white paper rose I had placed between her fingers. Huddled under his umbrella, the priest spat out the final blessing as fast as he could. He can't wait to get inside again, I thought. Can't wait to sit his fat behind in the plush chair next to the stove and fill his gut with apple cake. I did not hear a word of his mumbling. I was studying our family headstone. My mother's name, newly chiseled, was at the bottom. Just above was my father's name. He had passed away last year. Above him, my brother, who had inherited his weak lungs. At the very top was a string of five sisters, vague recollections. Babies who had died before they were old enough to leave the cradle. A cruel joke, I thought, that I was the only one who had survived. What would I do now? I wasn't old enough to get married, wouldn't inherit a scrap of land. We had sold the farm to pay our debts.
Now my mother's coffin was at the bottom of the hole. Cloudy water closed inaround it. The hole seemed to beckon me. The ground beneath my feet was soggy, uneven. It would be so easy just to slip and fall into that dark wet place. Cling to the unvarnished coffin, a ship on an underground sea taking me to join the rest of them. I wanted to cry, thought this would be so much easier if I could just throw back my head and bawl thunderously like a bad actress in a village play. But I could not. My eyes stayed dry. My tears would not come until much, much later.
Uncle Peter, standing beside me and holding the umbrella over our heads, was crying in the choked silent way that men do. My mother's favorite brother, the village schoolmaster, the only bachelor over thirty left in our valley, though none of the unmarried women favored him. He was a bit of a laughingstock, a grown man who wept while his young niece remained stoic, this man who lived only for his books, who slept in the schoolhouse for lack of a proper home.
The priest slapped his missal shut and made the last sign of the cross, and the guests dashed away to my aunt's house, where the funeral dinner awaited them. I let them go without me. The thought of food made my stomach clench like a fist. The thought of all those people gawking at me to see how I was coping. I wanted to hide in the forest like an animal.
"Kathrin, come away from that grave." My uncle was speaking to me. "You'll catch your death in this rain." He led me into the empty church, the only place we could be indoors and still alone. I didn't bother wiping my feet at the threshold. My uncle sat on the back pew and stared into his handkerchief with red swollen eyes, while I paced up and down the aisle, my arms folded in front of me, wondering how much of a mess I could make with my trail of dirty footprints. I found my eyes resting on the statue of the Virgin, her sweet tender face bent to the child in her arms. Swinging around sharply, I marched to the back of the church and sat beside my uncle, who took my hand. How could his hand be so warm? Mine was cold as a marble slab. All the fire had gone out inside me. I thought I would never be warm again, thought the blood inside my veins would freeze. My uncle looked at me, his dump hair falling in his face. I brushed it back for him, and he put his arm around me. "There's nothing left for you here, Kathrin. You know that, don't you?"
I set my mouth in a firm grim line.
"I want to send you away from here."
At first I thought he was joking. "Give me your bicycle," I said, speaking for the first time since breakfast. "I'll ride to Switzerland and send you a card." The Swiss border was thirty odd miles away.
"No, Kathrin. You'll go farther than that. I'm sending you to America."
I turned away from him, looking at the cheap oil prints of the stations of the cross. America was a myth to me. Like the North Pole. As distant as the place my mother had gone to. Five years ago my cousin Lotte had gone over. She had sent a few picture postcards of tall buildings like the spires of cathedrals, then silence. America was a place that swallowed you up, and you were never heard from again.
"There's just enough money for your passage. You can live with Lotte. She'll look after you and help you find work. Anyone with half a brain can find work over there. Here," he said with a sharp outtake of breath, "here you'd just be a servant girl until you're old enough to marry. That's not what your mother would have wanted."
I turned to him again, wrapping my arms around his neck, pressing my face against his wet wool coat. Already his voice sounded like it was coming from the other end of the world.
"You were always the best in school, Kathrin. You put the other children to shame. I didn't spend all those years educating you just to have you marry some farmer who'll treat you no better than a brood mare." He spoke plainly. That had been my mother's fate. Pregnant every other year until my father died. By that time her body had been too broken to make much use of her widowhood.
"You're a bright girl. Too bright for this place. We're different from the rest, you and I. We don't fit the mold. For a man it's hard enough, but for a woman ..." He broke off. I thought again of my mother.
"You know you have to forget this place. Wipe it from your memory. Learn English as fast as you can. That's the most important thing. As soon as you step off that ship, you'll be an American."
* April, 1912
A vast sweep of brick warehouses and factories flew past me. Smokestacks reared into the air. It was so flat here. The sky had never seemed so close. My first view of Minneapolis was from the window of a moving train. We crossed a bridge over the Mississippi, brown and wide, with flat-bottomed barges carrying timber. As the boy opposite me opened the window to get a better look, a blast of cool spring air hit me in the face, and then I breathed in the city's smell: the smell of coal smoke mingled with a musty, yeasty odor I could not identify.
* When I stepped off the train, I saw a woman in her early twenties who was holding a piece of cardboard with my name scrawled across it in red crayon. I made my way toward her, this strange American who was the cousin I had not seen in five years. She wore a shiny pink dress with ruffles around the neck. Her waist was so tiny, cinched by her corset, I could have fit my hands around it, but her bosom rose above it, heavy, and powerful. With a figure like hers, she belonged in the country. Baking bread and raking hay with her strong arms. How out of place she looked here, standing in a railway station with paint on her face. At home if you painted yourself, they called you a loose woman. She was smoking. Back in our village, only men smoked. I stopped a few feet in front of her, put down my suitcase, held out my hand for her to shake. Wondering what I could possibly say to her and whether I should say it in English or German. But my cousin made things simple.
"Du bisch d'Kathrin" she declared in a watered-down version of our old dialect. "I'm Lotte. That's your only bag? Come along, we have to catch the streetcar. I hope you have a nickel for the fare."
"Nickel?" I had never heard the word before.
"Five cents" she explained, already exasperated. "We'll room together at the boardinghouse. It's cheaper that way. And you'll work with me at the mill."
* When Lotte said mill, I pictured the old water mill in our village. But the next morning she took me to cavernous brick grain mills painted white as flour, so immense I could have fit my parents' old farmstead inside them. The mills were clustered around St. Anthony Falls, straddling both sides of the Mississippi. Towering around me, they blocked the sun, just like the hills that surrounded the Höllental. They spewed smoke and pumped out that same yeasty odor I had noticed yesterday on the train. Of course, I thought. This must be the smell of flour.
"Don't stand there with your mouth wide open." Lotte tugged my sleeve. "People will think you're some stupid little farm girl who never set foot in a city before." E' dumm's Baremädele. She led me through an iron door into one of those brick fortresses. "This is the Pillsbury Mill, the biggest in the world," she said. "Write home and tell them that."
Following my cousin through a maze of electrically lit corridors, I thought of the story of the elves who lived inside the Zauberberg, the magic mountain. Red-faced, blue-shirted men pushed trolleys of grain. Watching them, I felt like a child at a fair. Even their curses sounded wondrous and strange, because they were in American English. I sneezed on the flour dust, which seemed to permeate every inch of the corridor. Like pollen, like snow in summer. The whole place hummed like a wasps' nest. The smell of flour and machine oil filled my lungs. "Come on, we'll be late." Lotte grabbed my arm and marched me into a room with an impossibly high ceiling. Walls of bare brick, grimy skylights at the very top. I thought how hot it would be in summer, how cold in winter. The wooden floor was littered with fabric scraps, dust balls, and odd bits of thread that got caught on the hem of my skirt. This was like a giant schoolroom, except where there should have been desks, there were sewing machines, women and girls hunched over them. Some of them looked so young—twelve or thirteen—but they already had the hooded, dark-circled eyes of old women. They were speaking all languages, not just American. They were pumping the foot pedals of their sewing machines like someone trying to ride a bicycle up an impossibly steep hill.
"You'll sit next to me," Lotte said, steering me over to two battered machines in the far corner, within sniffing distance of the lavatory. "We sew flour bags." She pointed to the crate of white cotton cloth on the floor between the two machines. "Take good care of everything. If you break a needle, they dock your wages. If you break the machine, they make you pay for it. You get five cents for each finished bag, so if you want to bring in five dollars a week, you better get cracking. If you're good, you can bring in six a week, but while you're new, you'll be lucky to get four or four-fifty. Your half of the rent at the boardinghouse is two-fifty," she added. "Just so you know."
I sat on the wobbly wooden chair. The seat, at least, was comfortable, worn smooth and deep by the seamstresses before me.
"Here's where you put the bobbins, and this is how you thread the needle."
Too transfixed to listen, I stared at the sign on the far wall, the red letters big enough to be seen from every corner of the room. I tried to decipher the foreign words.
No Gum Chewing
No Eating or Drinking
Five Minutes Late Means Fifty Cents Docked from Your Pay
Be in Your Place at All Times
"Kathrin, pay attention! You'll have to thread your own needle after this."
"Yes, yes." I ran a faltering hand over the machine and traced the gold letters stamped on the black cast iron, spelling out its brand name: Phoenix. What a name for a sewing machine! A firebird rising from the ashes.
"Kathrin, what are you looking at? Have you never seen a sewing machine before?"
"Mother never had one. I'm sure I could sew better by hand."
"Foreman's coming. Get to work." Lotte put two lengths of white cotton, already stamped with the Pillsbury logo, under her needle. Her foot flew to the pedal, then the needle burst into motion, the bobbins oscillating wildly. A blur of white and silver. The rattle and hum of two hundred Phoenix brand sewing machines in the same room. Two hundred women and girls sewing away like mad. I gave my cousin one last desperate look, but her face was a mask of concentration. The dots of rouge on her cheeks stood out like streetcar lamps. I found myself staring at her pink taffeta blouse with its plunging neckline, displaying her breasts like melons at a market stall. I looked away and took a deep breath, inhaling Lotte's perfume along with the stink of the lavatories.
I folded the edges of two pieces of fabric and pinned them together with the rusty pins sticking out of the cushion near my cousin's machine. Sewing straight seams to make flour bags. The task sounded simple enough. At home I had sewn complicated things by hand. Smocked blouses, gathered skirts, embroidered chemises. Smoothing the fabric out, aligning it to the path of the needle, I put my foot on the pedal. At first so lightly that nothing happened. Then I put a bit more weight on it, started pumping it back and forth. The needle moved up and down like a hen pecking seeds. I moved the fabric along. My hands were trembling. I was practically biting my bottom lip off. Straight seams, any fool should be able to do this. I started pumping faster, trying to get into the rhythm of it. I broke into a sweat, the back of my dress sticking to my shoulder blades like wet leaves. The blur of silver as the needle speeded up, the fabric bunching underneath it, the thread bunching together, the needle jamming. I took my foot off the pedal and examined my handiwork. A string of swear words emerged from my lips, a vocabulary I had never even known I possessed.
Lotte lifted her foot from her pedal, dug a seam ripper out of her pocket. "Rip the thread out and try again." Her words were cut short by a man's voice, a flood of abuse so elaborate, it made my cursing sound like Sunday school talk. He was screaming at me in a language half-foreign, half-familiar. I turned in my seat to see a squat man with a drooping, snuff-stained mustache. This must be the foreman. His embroidered name patch said Sepp Buchmayer. With a name like that, he could only be Bavarian, which accounted for his barbaric dialect. He was yelling at the top of his lungs, but his speech went through me like air. My eyes froze on the ropy strings of saliva between his yellow teeth, the net of broken blood vessels in his bulbous nose. He was bending over me, grabbing my arm to illustrate his point, attempting to lift me out of my chair.
Lotte sprang between us, sticking her cleavage in the man's face. I sank back into my seat and started jabbing at the bunched thread with the seam ripper. This isn't America. This is a bad dream. By the time I had torn the thread out and spread the material under the needle, Lotte was in her chair again, smoothing her hair back into place. I reached out to her, but she slapped my hand away. "I saved your skin. He's extra hard on new girls who haven't proved themselves."
How can you let that awful man come near you, I wanted to scream, but something in Lotte's briskness told me to leave the subject alone. "Why didn't he speak English to me?" I asked instead. "I could have been American for all he knew."
Lotte sighed so heavily, she blew her pin curls off her forehead. "No one would ever mistake you for an American. An American girl would know how to work a sewing machine. Besides, I told him I'd be bringing you in today to replace the last girl he fired. It doesn't take much to get yourself fired here. If you didn't have me to look after you, you'd be out on the street."
* When we left the mill ten hours later, following the stream of men and women out the metal doors into the darkness, I could hear the rush of the falls, could see the yellow streetlights on the other side of the Mississippi, distant with comfort and promise. Black water streamed under the Stone Arch Bridge, where a train snaked away into the night. Something leapt inside me when I heard it whistle. A westbound train. I thought of cities perched on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, fabulous as fairy tales. I imagined the sun setting on an endless expanse of waves. This is America.
If I were a man, I'd run away and live like a gypsy. If I were a man, I'd never let the likes of Sepp Buchmayer lay a hand on me. I'd throw him against the wall and give him a good pounding for what he did to Lotte. But my cousin seemed to have forgotten the incident. She was adjusting her straw hat with the red satin cherries. A hand-rolled cigarette was sticking out of her painted lips at a jaunty angle. "Come along to the tavern," she said. "It's the best part of the day."
* Every night after work, Lotte went to Schmidt's Tavern in Northeast Minneapolis, just a few blocks away front our boardinghouse. A cramped bar packed with mill workers, mostly German, mostly men. A dim place with weak gaslights and clouds of blue smoke rising to the pressed tin ceiling. The sawdust on the floor was slick with spilled beer the night I followed Lotte through the swinging glass doors. Half the men turned to look at her, greeting her by name. There was one free stool in the rear corner. I headed straight for it, sat myself down, and crossed my arms in front of my rib cage to make myself look as small and inconspicuous as possible. I didn't like the look of those men. Eight o'clock in the evening and they were already drunk, pawing at my cousin, who didn't even bother to push their hands away. One of them lurched in my direction. "Wer is' denn de Gloane?" he asked Lotte. Who's the little girl? Lotte calmly placed herself between us and pressed a glass of beer into my hand. "Let her be," she said. "She's just a kid." Si `sch nur e' Kind. "A good girl." E' brav's Mädele. "Not your type, at all."
I took a few sips of beer, but it was flat and lukewarm, acid in my empty stomach. Listening to the smattering of dialects around me, I wondered how I would ever learn English. "I don't like to drink," I said, passing the beer to my cousin.
"Suit yourself." She raised it to her mouth, took a long swallow, then resumed her banter with the men. From my perch on the stool, I watched her flirting, teasing. When they flirted back, she seemed to open up and bloom. The flickering gaslight softened the rouge on her checks. At nine-thirty, when she finally whisked me off the stool, her eyes were luminous.
"We better go," she said, "if we still want to get some supper out of the landlady."
* We ate our supper in the boardinghouse kitchen. The meal that night and every night thereafter consisted of a plate of stew. Gray strips of some unidentifiable meat mixed in with slimy bits of cabbage, turnip, and plenty of gristle. Half an hour after downing my portion, I ran to the lavatory, where it came out again, out of my burning mouth and down the sewer pipe.
"It's because of the gristle," Lotte told me when I joined her again in our closet-sized room. "That happened to me, too, in the old days, but then I got used to it. You just need to toughen up a little."
I turned away from her and began to undress for bed.
"You know, for a kid, you're not bad looking." Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her stabbing out her last cigarette of the day into the overflowing saucer on the bedside table. "If you smiled a little more, you'd even be pretty."
I threw my nightgown over my head, wriggled my arms into the sleeves. I didn't feel the least bit comely. More like a stray clog with matted fur.
"You should be friendlier to the boys at the tavern." My cousin spoke decisively. "A few of them liked the look of you."
"I'm not looking for a boyfriend," I said and proceeded to give my face a vigorous scrub with white soap and cold water at the washstand.
"That's the only way you'll ever get out of the mill." Lotte pulled back the quilts on the iron-framed bed we shared, motioning me to crawl in beside her. "The only way out is by marrying. As soon as I find someone decent, I'll leave this place. Just keep that in mind, Kathrin. I won't be around to look after you forever. Sooner or later you'll have to get yourself a man. It's never too early to start looking."
She shut off the lamp. "Good-night," I said in English, just for the sake of speaking English. The only English I had spoken that day. I clung to my edge of the bed to keep myself from rolling into the sagging hollow in the middle. Shutting my eyes, I commanded myself to sleep, but every part of my body hurt. My neck and back ached from hunching over the sewing machine for ten hours. My stomach and throat were raw from the vomiting. I couldn't imagine ever eating again. I would turn into a ghost, a wraith. Don't feel sorry for yourself! I tried to use reason. Self-pity wasn't going to get me anywhere. I tried to lecture myself like a stern schoolmistress. Lotte is right. You will grow a thicker skin. You will get used to this place. This is just the beginning.
Kathrin, Kathrin. In my head I repeated my name over and over. First with the German pronunciation. Kah-treen. Then the American way. Kath-run. It made me sound like a different person. A person who could talk back to Sepp Buchmayer in perfect American English, making him ashamed. When I finally fell asleep, I dreamt of a hollow mountain made of flour. Hollow mountains are full of treasure. Two hundred girls and women lived inside that mountain. Running down mineshafts with picks and shovels, searching for diamonds, searching for gold.
* When I found out that the YWCA offered cheap English classes, I signed up immediately. This was what my uncle would have wanted. The teacher was a soft-spoken man in his early thirties who reminded me of him—a second-generation Swede named Peterson. I took that to be a good omen. I was determined to make him proud, make my uncle proud, too. The class was held four nights a week in a cramped room off Nicollet Avenue. There were too many students for the class-room's forty desks, so if you came late, you had to stand in the back for the whole three-hour lesson. My classmates were mill girls, factory girls, and seamstresses. One gift sat all day in a sub-basement making cigarettes.
We came straight from work, drained and exhausted, and also hungry, because attending class meant skipping supper. I thought that learning could feed me like nothing else, and for a while, it did. I studied my grammar on the streetcar back to the boardinghouse, studied all Sunday after church. Even in the mill, I memorized vocabulary, conjugated verbs in my head as I labored away on my flour bags. I don't know what inhuman energy was propelling me.
"Why?" Lotte kept asking me. "Where do you think it's going to get you? Do you think anyone at the mill cares if you speak good English or not?" I ignored her. From April, 1912, when I started my English lessons, to March, 1914, when Mr. Peterson told me I didn't need to come anymore, I was first in my class. I got a gold stamped certificate with my name penned in beautiful calligraphy. Only when my classes were over and my nights empty again did I begin to wonder if Lotte had been right.
Those spring nights in 1914, when the light stretched later and later into the evening, I began to take long solitary walks, going as far as the university. Those nights I asked myself questions, tried to answer them in my head. What is the difference between hunger and longing? On the surface the answer sounds simple enough. Hunger is a sensation of the body. Longing concerns the soul. But for me in that last spring before the war, before I became a woman and fell from grace, they were one and the same. I could not separate my hunger from my longing. I craved food, books, kindness, everything with a hunger that made me light-headed. Hunger and longing like a siren were leading me away from the straight and narrow, down the path of solitude and exclusion. My hunger drove me to ridiculous acts. By May, 1914, my hunger had grown unbearable.
Posted August 21, 2000
A beautifully written soul-growing story that interweaves history, fairy tale, love story, and a young woman`s search for self. Deeply moving and compulsively readable.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.