Interview at Wordstock with Anna Solomon author of The Little Bride
by Diane Prokop
I met up with author Anna Solomon at Wordstock recently and we talked about her debut novel, The Little Bride. It’s the story of 16-year-old Minna Losk who leaves Odessa as a mail-order bride bound for America in the 1800s. She dreams of a young, wealthy husband, a house of her own, and freedom from physical labor. Her husband turns out to be a farmer more than twice her age who is rigidly Orthodox. He has two teenage sons and they live in a sod hut on the plains of South Dakota. The country is desolate, the winters are brutal, and most troubling of all, Minna finds herself attracted to her older stepson.
Diane: You paint a vivid picture of what it was like to live in a hut on the plains of Sodakota as they called it. The detail is phenomenal. Can you tell me about the research you did?
Anna: I did a tremendous amount of research. It was mostly history books but some of it was fiction like Isaac Babel’s Odessa Tales and Willa Cather’s, My Antonia, for the texture about the place and time. Then I kind of absorbed it and tried to forget about it and just imagined this world. I used the research as inspiration, but I tried not to have it limit me.
Diane: In the first chapter, Minna is subjected to the “look” where she is examined to make sure she has certain qualities like patience and also to check that she is a virgin. That was chilling to read. How did you learn about that?
Anna: It was inspired by a real Jewish mail-order bride who came in the 1880s or 1890s. She wrote a memoir of her life and it’s quite amazing. At the beginning, she had a “look” and the one piece of it that translates is the tangle of yarn to test her patience. She didn’t describe it in much detail, but what she said was ‘they inspected me like a horse.’ It was one of those lines that said everything and nothing, so this whole scene came into my mind. It was really me taking that and going with it.
Diane: Do you have any idea how many women were Jewish mail-order brides?
Anna: I have no idea. I’ve tried to research it, but it’s even hard to find out how many Jewish pioneers were coming at this time. I think there were probably tens of thousands of pioneer Jews, but there isn’t a lot of documentation.
Diane: Your book is not just about a mail-order bride, it’s about the sorts of things we are all searching for in our lives. There are a lot of universal themes such as hope for a new beginning, courage, looking for freedom. Can you speak to some of these?
Anna: I tend not to read something because of what it’s about. I read because of the way the story is told and that it’s told in such a way that the themes are universal. I tend to write as I want to read, in a way. I feel like freedom and choice are the major themes in the book. In a lot of ways, Minna is learning to make her own choices. Freedom means to her, in the beginning that ‘I will not be subject to anyone anymore, and I will therefore be able to choose whatever I want, and that will be dignity.’ She has had a lot of humiliation so she will come out from under that yoke and will be free. What she finds is not just that the world she goes into is much harsher than she imagines, but also that freedom is uncomfortable, and choice is uncomfortable for her, so that even though she wants to make her own choices, she winds up letting other people make them for her anyway. By the end, she comes to claim her own choices and take responsibility for them.
Diane: The character of Minna is very complex. At times she seems to know exactly what she wants, but at other times she seems confused and a victim. How do you see her?
Anna: In some ways, she’s very strong and in some other ways, not. Part of why I was able to stay with her for a whole novel and why I love her is because she is so complicated. She’s very conflicted. She doesn’t really know how to relate to people or how to have relationships, and the book is her journey toward that.
Diane: Faith plays a large role in this book. It seems that there was a lot of lost faith by characters in this book. How did you come to that theme?
Anna: It’s something I’ve thought about a lot. Faith became a very important theme obviously. One of the things I’m most interested in, with relation to faith, is the way in which some people find comfort in faith for the structure it gives, for the rules it gives, for the way in which one does not need to make choices. So for Max, his discipline is a way not to have to make choices. He just knows; these are the rules. Minna has never been able to feel that kind of faith, but she feels like it would be easier if she had faith – she could follow the rules. To me, it tied a little bit to the writing process. I fought in my early twenties against becoming a writer because it’s so hard and no one ever tells you what to do. I signed up to do a post-bac pre-med program to become a doctor, and I didn’t get very far before I realized that I’m doing this because I’m terrified of not knowing. It would be clear what I was supposed to do for the next 12 years of my life, and there would be a great comfort in that. Yet, of course, I’m drawn toward not knowing and I don’t really want anyone to tell me what to do. But I’m interested in that conflict and I think it’s related to a lot of people’s conflict around faith.
Diane: What would you like the reader to take away from the book?
Anna: In some ways, it’s a very universal coming-of-age tale but it’s almost reversed because in so many ways Minna has not had a real childhood. But, I think she starts out hoping to have one. She imagines that marriage might be more like a girlhood than her girlhood has ever been. She has a desire to renounce all the responsibility she’s had her whole life. It’s her journey to, on some level, just be happier and come to terms with what it means to become responsible and have obligation and make her own choices.
Diane: What did you learn in writing The Little Bride?
Anna: Writing the book definitely made me think more clearly regarding my conflicted relationship to Judaism and my faith. In a lot of ways, the book to me was less about Judaism and more about being an outsider, so this book was a chance to explore that as well. I think a lot of artists feel that way at some point in one way or another. That’s where your perspective comes from.
Diane: Some authors are considered Irish writers, Southern writers, or Western writers. Do you consider yourself a Jewish writer and did you set out to write a book with a Jewish theme?
Anna: I didn’t. In the same way that the category of historical fiction kind of hit me over the head later, it’s been like that, ‘oh, you wrote a Jewish book.’ It’s been interesting to me. I found that when I first started writing short stories, there was no hint of Judaism at all. All my characters were WASPs from New England. I slowly started writing more and more about that. But I identify myself as a writer first, and then as a Jewish writer, a woman writer or historical novelist. Part of it is a marketing necessity, but on the other hand, of course I am a Jewish writer. I’m Jewish and I’m a writer. I think about all the Jewish writers who have been so formative for me and so influential – Phillip Roth, Amy Bloom, Bernard Malamud, Isaac Babel to name a few.
Anna Solomon received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is a two-time winner of the Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, One Story, the Georgia Review, and she has twice been awarded a Pushcart Prize. Formerly, she produced and reported award-winning features for NPR’s Living on Earth.