Beyond the Pale by Elana Dykewomon
The novel Beyond the Pale begins in Russia, in the village of Kishinev, where we meet Miriam, a woman in labour being attended by the midwife, Gutke. Gutke will become one of the main characters in this novel. This is a difficult birth but the midwife’s skill ensures that the baby is born alive and that the mother survives. Gutke has a vision that this daughter, named Chava, will have a long and difficult journey. It is Chava who will become the centre of the novel.
The first half of the novel takes place in Russia in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. This is a time of escalating waves of anti-Jewish riots that sweep through southwestern Imperial Russia.
During these pogroms thousands of Jewish homes were destroyed, many families were reduced to poverty, and large numbers of men, women, and children were injured and killed.
The 1903 Kishinev pogrom, also known as the Kishinev Massacre, provoked an international outcry after it was publicized by the New York Times. "The anti-Jewish riots in Kishinev, Bessarabia (modern Moldova), are worse than the censor will permit to publish. There was a well laid-out plan for the general massacre of Jews on the day following the Orthodox Easter. The Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep. The dead number 120 and the injured about 500. The scenes of horror attending this massacre are beyond description. Babies were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob. The local police made no attempt to check the reign of terror. At sunset the streets were piled with corpses and wounded. Those who could make their escape fled in terror, and the city is now practically deserted of Jews."
No wonder that a significant numbers of Russian Jews made the decision to leave Russia and emigrate, most to the United States. Chava is one of those who will leave, along with her Aunt and Uncle from Odessa, and their family.
After a long voyage they arrive, through Ellis Island, to begin a new life in New York City. Leaving behind an affluent life in Odessa the family now lives in a tenement and looks for work in this city crowded with immigrants. They work in factories; long hours for low pay, barely making a living even with everyone working. Chava becomes involved in the labour movement, just beginning, in an attempt to improve hours and wages for the factory workers.
This novel is a fascinating view of the immigrant experience and of the early labour and suffragette movement in the United States. One of the most powerful parts of the novel involves the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that took place in New York City on March 25, 1911. We learn that, “The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was located on the eighth, ninth and tenth floors, of what was then known as the Asch Building. The fire began late in the afternoon on the eighth floor - only one staircase had an exit that led to the roof. All other doors were locked. Fed by thousands of pounds of flammable fabric, the terrible blaze spread rapidly to the upper floors. Many, with their hair and clothes on fire, jumped to their deaths from open windows. For the fire department, the horror story that unfolded was compounded by the fact that although their equipment was the most sophisticated of its day, the ladders only reached up to the sixth floor. Firemen watched helplessly as workers died before their very eyes and life nets broke when the desperate women jumped in groups of three and four. Most of the 146 victims were women, Italian and Jewish immigrants between the ages of thirteen and twenty-three.”
Elana Dykewomon is an author, lesbian activist, and university professor at San Francisco State University in California. Beyond the Pale was first published in 1997 by a small Canadian publisher now defunct, and reprinted by another Canadian publisher in 2003, and again in 2007.
Beyond the Pale does deal with issues in the lives of lesbian women, but Elana Dykewomon discovered that her novel has been embraced by a mainstream audience. It continues after fourteen years to be a book club choice – and she is still asked to speak about her novel and the history of the time. She says she was always drawn to the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, that it was a story that demanded to be written – and she has done it brilliantly.