“Beguiled” by Karma Kitaj

  • “Beguiled” by Karma Kitaj Contributed photo

For the Recorder
Published: 8/8/2019 9:37:30 AM

History lovers will find a wealth of period detail in author Karma Kitaj’s new novel “Beguiled.” Kitaj, who lives in Bernardston, says in the afterword that the book was inspired by aspects of her mother’s youth.

The author quickly adds that the book in no way follows her mother’s actual life. Still, the reader senses Kitaj’s affection for her heroine, Miriam Levine.

Born in 1900, Miriam is the daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants who live in Boston’s West End. Her life at home is not always easy. Her mother is a cheerless figure. Aged before her time and depressed after a series of miscarriages, the mother finally gives birth to a little brother for Miriam.

Unfortunately, the baby is sickly. His illness imposes additional strain on the household. Miriam’s mother devotes herself to caring for him, wearing herself out even further and causing Miriam to feel unloved.

Miriam has two escapes from this oppressive atmosphere. One is school, where her feminist teacher encourages her to dream of a future bigger than being a housewife.

The other comes once a week when her father takes her to the theater. Their excursions reflect the diversity of performance in Boston at the time; they attend straight plays, Yiddish theater, and even vaudeville shows.

Miriam is enchanted — beguiled, in fact — by the performances she witnesses and develops theatrical ambitions. She participates in a production of “The Wizard of Oz” and loves both the make-believe of acting and the accolades she receives for her performance.

Her theatrical aspirations are shattered both by her mother’s negative reaction to the idea of an actress in the family and by an unexpected pregnancy. Under pressure from her parents, she marries the father of her baby. He and his family nearly stifle her dreams.

Eventually, Miriam extricates herself from the marriage and has another opportunity to pursue a theatrical life, this time in New York City. There she meets many of the artistic and intellectual leaders of the 1920s — and her life veers in unexpected directions.

I was a little surprised to observe while reading the book that Miriam, unlike my Jewish father’s family in the same period, experiences very little anti-Semitism.

Perhaps this is because she spends much of her life in a community of other Jewish people, in artistic circles, or among social reformers. The last two groups were probably less likely than the general population to express what they would have seen as old-fashioned prejudice.

Or perhaps Kitaj, like her heroine, is an idealist.

“Beguiled” is an ideal summer read; I breezed through it in a day and enjoyed myself in the process. Karma Kitaj obviously had a great deal of fun learning about the atmosphere and people of Boston and New York at a crucial time in American history. Her research is a rich gift to her readers.

Tinky Weisblat is the award-winning author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook,” “Pulling Taffy,” and “Love, Laughter, and Rhubarb.” Visit her website, www.TinkyCooks.com.




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