The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman
Malka and her family leave Russia in the early 1900s. They are fleeing poor conditions and pogroms. They are searching for a better life. The original plan is to go to South Africa, to be with an uncle. Malka’s father is one for gambling though and the family gets sick while waiting to emigrate. Malka’s father takes the money, or some of it, and the tickets, out of Malka’s special pocket, sewn into her jacket for safe keeping. He switches the tickets for America and off the family goes. Malka’s mother is not pleased with this at all.
They must scrape by in New York City. They sleep on a living room floor and work for a tailor. One day, Malka’s father disappears. Malka is constantly blamed for the family’s situation. She runs right in front of a horse one day and is injured. She’s in the hospital for quite some time. The man who ran her over, an Italian man who sells Italian ices, decides to take Malka in because he feels bad. Malka’s mother also doesn’t want her back. Malka’s mother actually ends up in a mental institution. Malka must work and work to be able to walk again. She will walk with a cane for the rest of her life, but that’s better than the alternative.
She is adopted by the Italian family, becoming Lilian Donello. Lillian, as she is now called, grows up and learns to appreciate her adoptive family, although they don’t always appreciate her. She marries a man she tutors, Albert Dunkle. When her adoptive family leaves her in poor circumstances, Lillian must fend for herself. She and Bert start making their own ice cream. They even trade their truck for a shack near a beach town. Bert invents an ice cream machine. As time goes by, Lillian’s company becomes extremely profitable and well-known. She even becomes a television personality, but things unravel after a time.
Bert dies and Lillian tries to cope with her new life, not always through honest means, but then again, that’s Lillian for you. An accident on her television show puts Lillian in the media spotlight with results that are not at all pleasant.
What I liked
This was definitely an interesting story. It reminds me of other stories I have read about food business moguls–Hershey or Mars, for a couple of examples. Dunkle’s ice cream is not real, but the story could be a real thing and Lillian could be a real person, but she’s not.
This book does have a lot of history in it and does tell a story with a typical immigrant experience. Nothing in this book rings fake. It’s all something that just might be true, if it weren’t fiction, and you would believe it.
What I didn’t like
While Lillian is funny sometimes in her irreverence, she’s not the kind of person you would be friends with.Wanting to be friends with a character in a book is not a requirement of good book character, it just helps when reading a story if you find the character likeable. I think she’s mean. I think she really doesn’t care that deeply about anybody but herself. She seems to regard even her child with apathy. She loves making money and she loves making ice cream. She does love her husband, even though you may not be able to tell it with the way she treats him.
Now, if Lillian were not depicted as a woman who wasn’t good-looking and was also disabled, would she be judged as harshly as a character? I think we tend to think that anybody with a disability, or considered less than by society for whatever reason, should have a better attitude about life and treat people better because they’ve been humbled by their situation. While that may be true in some circumstances, living that kind of life can also make a person bitter, which it seems to have done for Lillian. She has had to fight against society’s view of her since she had the accident in the first place and she’s bitter about it. She doesn’t think she should be demeaned because she has a disability or because she’s a woman, or because she’s not a good-looking woman. We should all think that way. No one should be demeaned for a disability, or their sex, or whether or not society deems them beautiful.
I tend to think that Lillian should be nicer about things in her life and a little more accepting of those around her, but I get it. I get that she’s had this hard life and she feels as if she has to be hard in return. If society pushes on her, she’s going to push back.
I think that the author, Susan, was able to depict a hard life, made more difficult because people can be jerks about disabilities or illnesses. I don’t have a disability, but I can tell you that I sure as heck have been looked over and ignored because of side effects from an autoimmune disease. I do think that Susan got into this whole scenario quite well, but I don’t like that we’re like that as a people.
You scream, I scream, Lillian Dunkle makes you eat ice cream.
Do you want some ice cream right now?
Don’t people with disabilities or illnesses have just as much right to be mad as everyone else, or more even?