Jean Stafford: Boston Adventure
Sonia (Sonie) Marburg is the twelve year old daughter of two immigrants to the United States. Her father, Hermann, is German and came from a fairly well-to-do family and has trained as a cobbler. Her mother, Shura Korf, came from a poor Russian family. She worked as a waitress and was able to save up enough money to emigrate to the United States. She met Hermann on the boat and he promised her, according to her, a life of luxury and wealth. This has not happened.
The family live in the small (fictitious) village of Chichester, on the opposite side of the bay from Boston. They are not well-off. Hermann has a small cobbler’s business, repairing rather than making shoes and does not make much money. He drinks away much of it. Shura works as a chambermaid at the Barstow Hotel, which mainly seems to cater for the Boston rich, who come there in the summer. Sonia often has to substitute for her mother, when Shura is unwell and, as a result, has seen the life the rich live and she is envious. She has a fantasy that Miss Lucy Pride, a rich, elderly lady, will ask her to live with her in her house in Boston. Sonia has never been to Boston though she sees it every day, across the bay.
When Miss Pride finds out that Hermann is the husband of Shura and father of Sonia, she engages him to make shoes for her and her niece and, indeed, seems to have a large number of shoes made. Hermann is well aware that this is charity and is resentful.
Relations between Hermann and Shura are not good. They continually argue and Shura can hear them. Shura is disappointed that Hermannn has not given her the luxury that she craves. Hermann finds her disappointing as a wife. Eventually, after a big row, Hermann leaves. He takes virtually nothing and leaves no information. His wife is four months pregnant when he leaves and, eventually, with the help of a neighbour, gives birth to a boy, Ivan. Shura declines to resume working and the burden falls on Sonia. As well as working at the hotel, she works for the pregnant mother of a classmate, Betty. Naturally, there is a comparison between the two girls, not least because Betty, aged twelve, believes her mother is going to the hospital to select a baby.
Shura’s mental health starts to deteriorate and it is Sonia who is both breadwinner and carer of Ivan, a difficult child. Shura does take up embroidery and makes a bit of money from that. Ivan has health problems and when he is goes out in the snow to look for Sonia and does not return, he is found in a neighbour’s garden. He does not recover from his ordeal. Shura, who had said at times that she hated him, is filled with remorse and wants a fancy funeral, which she cannot afford. Sonia writes to Miss Pride for help but receives no reply. Miss Pike does eventually appear, after Ivan has been buried in a pauper’s grave.
Miss Pride is very kind to Sonia and even takes her to Boston for a day. Shura’s health is getting worse, not helped by the drunken Dr. Galbraith, a widower who is looking for something more than a patient. Galbraith dies and the young Dr Philip McAlister, a friend of Miss Pride, takes over. It is he who has Shura committed to an asylum.
Miss Pride once again comes to the rescue, offering to take Sonia in and send her to business college, so that she can become Miss Pride’s secretary. In Boston, she gradually becomes part of Miss Pride’s household and it is here that Stafford starts to mock Boston patrician society. I do not feel towards my servants as many people do, says Mrs. Prather, one of Miss Pride’s friends, I think of them as human beings. Much of the time, these Bostonians, male and female, gossip, try to arrange marriages for the younger generation, name drop (one woman was a friend of Henry James) and generally talk about trivialities, often with something of a bitchy edge. Miss Pride herself is not averse to criticising her friends and her beloved orphaned niece, Hopestill Mather, who lives with her. Hopestill is not always flattering about her aunt. Sonia can only stand back and watch and listen.
Sonia is taken up by the Countess von Happel. (Miss Pride rarely visits the Countess as she has her tea too early!) It is there she meets various German and Austrian acquaintances of the Countess and can continue to use the German she learned from her father. However, with Miss Pride, things do not always go well. Sonia is interested in Philip McAlister. Hope pretends not to be but when she sees that Sonia is interested, she develops a greater interest.
Much of the story concerns how Sonia feels (and others tell her the same thing) that she is essentially Miss Pride’s pet, her plaything. Sonia is aware of this but sees no way out. She is comfortable, (reasonably) well fed, gets some income and meets a selection of Boston society. She asserts her independence on more than one occasion but is generally slapped down when she does. It is not that Miss Pride is particularly cruel but she is nevertheless determined that things will be done the way she wants. This applies to Hope and to Sonia and, indeed, to other people she knows. However, both Hope and Sonia are well aware how dependent they are on Miss Pride and how much they owe her, particularly Sonia.
This book was a best-seller when first released and with this, her novel Mountain Lion and her stories, she continued to have a reputation, primarily in the United States. While Mountain Lion and her stories have been translated into several languages (though are generally out of print), as far as I can see this book only made it into French (five years after publication) and is long since out of print in that language, as it is out of print in English (though readily obtainable). In short, her reputation has faded away somewhat. The book is somewhat dated but still very readable. It clearly shows the influence of Henry James (who died a year after Stafford was born), which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your views on James. It is still worth reading.
First published 1944 by Harcourt, Brace