A Jewish Cinderella Story, With a Soap-opera Twist

Alit Karp
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Ice cream.Credit: Bloomberg
Alit Karp

“The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street,” by Susan Jane Gilman, Grand Central Publishing, 512 pages, $20

What is it that is so appealing about Cinderella-like stories? It’s the contrasting message that the writer of such stories seeks to transmit to his or her readers. In his “Poetics,” Aristotle says that the tragic hero must be imperfect – that his downfall and bitter fate are the result of a tragic mistake he committed. He adds that even though this person is imperfect, he “must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous – a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes or other illustrious men of such families.”

But when it comes to Cinderellas – such as Malka Treynovski, the heroine of Susan Jane Gilman’s “The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street” – we expect them to be anonymous, and, as the reader finds out in this case, even if they have a name, it can easily be exchanged.

In Gilman’s book, a poor and miserable child is transformed into an American “queen” – of the manufacture and sale of ice cream. Like Cinderella, she also has an issue with feet – although, whereas the one in the original fairy tale had small, dainty and enviable feet, Malka has a defective one. What she has in common with the classical tragic hero is that her journey, though in her case it is to the top, is also a result of a series of small errors. To these errors are appended big and small lies, but also diligence, intelligence and initiative.

The road mapped out by Gilman for her heroine from the very outset creates an optimistic yet comic atmosphere, which pulls the reader in by magical threads. By treading a path opposite to the one taken by tragic heroes, she signals to the reader that her heroine is on the right track, so that he can relax, knowing that all’s well that ends well.

'The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street,' by Susan Jane Gilman.

This on its own would be sufficient basis for this novel’s becoming an intercontinental bestseller – as it has -- and it may be forgiven for some of its flaws, which partly stem from its being the author’s first novel. Perhaps due to a tendency of first novels to try and tell the readers everything the author knows, the plot also has a tragic twist that doesn’t quite fit the narrative as a whole.

Having begun with some technical comments, germane to the art of writing in general, I will additionally note that the rhetoric here is of the confessional type: The heroine relates her life story in the first person, alternating between past and present, until they merge. This was a correct choice, since, when used well – and Gilman does an excellent job in this – this technique gives one the sense that one is reading something that really happened, which always makes for a good sales pitch. The ability to draw closer to the heroine, learning about her successes and weaknesses in the first person, creates an intimacy between the reader and the text, such intimacy being the core of enjoyable reading.

Immigrant tales are always stories of re-birth: A person sets foot in a new country for the very first time, leaving behind everything that was his, needing to re-invent himself and his life. As a female, Malka Treynovski has more limited opportunities, and indeed starts life at the bottom of the ladder – as a Jewish girl arriving from Europe, early in the 20th century. She and her father had colluded in some trickery, changing their tickets from the desired destination of South Africa to the United States. Her mother and three sisters never forgive her for that, and given their abject poverty, the four girls must search for work at a very young age.

Cleaning for a song

The website of the Historical Novel Society notes that Gilman accurately describes the conditions that prevailed in those days in New York’s immigrant neighborhoods. One of the novel’s most pointed topics is the shameful poverty in these neighborhoods, and it offers ample descriptions of the large number of people who were sick and disabled, dying of diseases that had already been eradicated elsewhere through inoculation.

To earn enough for even a minimum of food, the protagonist and one of her sisters are sent to clean the house of their neighbors, who are also struggling with limited means. In one comic scene, the girls ask for their wages by singing – then ask for additional money in order to stop singing.

The plot’s first turning point occurs when a cart belonging to a Mr. Denillo, an ice-cream manufacturer who has come from from Naples, runs over Treynovski, injuring her badly. Just when he is most needed, her father disappears, and her mother has a nervous breakdown. Treynovski is left to languish in a hospital for poor children.

For his part, Denillo feels somewhat responsible, and he takes Treynovksi into his house, where she sleeps on a kitchen bench and eats leftover scraps, for which she feels immense gratitude toward her hosts. At the same time she misses her parents, and waits for them to come and collect her. She slowly recovers, but the accident has left her disabled, unable to make a living by manual labor. Denillo see to it that she has an education, despite the significant cost involved. In the evenings she does lacework for a textile manufacturer.

Only when she’s a little older does Denillo allow Treynovski to join the family ice-cream business, which they run of their home kitchen. Meanwhile, throughout this period, she steals small, pitiful items from the Denillos – hair pins, cutlery and other trifles. She sells them to a local pawnbroker so as to buy food for one of her sisters, who is living with another family.

When Treynovski is caught filching, she lies to her adoptive family about her motive, telling them she donated the money she received for the stolen items to the local church. The lie melts their hearts and they baptize her, renaming her Lillian, in place of Malka, and giving her their surname.

Malka/Lillian devotes herself to the ice-cream business, inventing new flavors, learning how to do the bookkeeping, cutting costs. She feels like part of the family. Eventually, she marries the handsome Bert Dunkle, a Jewish immigrant from Austria, stuttering and illiterate, as she later describes him. He loves her and admires her wisdom.

When they return from their honeymoon, financed by her adoptive family, she learns that they have dismantled the business in her absence, merging with another company. There is no room for her in the new venture. Furious, she vows to take revenge. Together with Bert, she starts making her own ice cream, in competition with the Denillos.

Such competition over a limited resource – the ice-cream market, in this case – could, with the fierce emotions it elicits, serve as fodder for many bestsellers. Indeed, classical literature has dealt with the subject repeatedly: On one hand, there is “Macbeth,” where Macbeth and Banco vie over the kingdom and its inheritance. On the other, there is the TV series “Dynasty” from the 1980s, in which two branches of the Carrington family compete for Texan oilfields. And these are but two examples.

The plot is replete with twists and turns, some the result of fate and others of the heroine’s own making. The author repeatedly plunges her into an abyss, only to see her claw her way back out. Occasionally, the reader is left feeling that anything might happen, making the plot seem more like that of a soap opera than that of a serious novel.

The Chicago Tribune’s literary critic Elizabeth Taylor wrote of the book: “Gilman understands the great sweep of the 20th-century scene, from life in a tenement on Orchard Street, to Italian Communists, Joe McCarthy, McDonald’s franchises, suburbanization and, of course, the history of ice cream in America. She blends it in a delicious swirl and adds a topical spin.”

The real strength of this book, however, lies not in the historical panorama it lays out, but rather in the human spectacle it presents. Even during life’s harshest moments, Treynovski is never a victim, since she has the wherewithal to take her fate in her own hands and decide where she is going with her life. She does this as a young girl, with a stomach growling from hunger and a painfully throbbing leg, and continues to do so as old age overcomes her.

She is, therefore, not a heroine simply by dint of the fact that she is the protagonist of a plot that follows the events of her life, but also because she makes the reader fall in love with her, forgiving her for her lies, her vengefulness and her at-times unbridled domineering behavior.