I finished Mary Sharratt’s Summit Avenue the other day. I had originally wanted to read it because it takes place in Minneapolis just before and at the beginning of World War I. It began as a little history lesson in the industry of the time. Flour mills were big here and lots of immigrants came here to work in the mills. Very soon, however, it turned from a history lesson to an enjoyable story.
Kathrin Albrect is sixteen when her mother dies. Her father died a few years earlier. She lives in a tiny valley in Germany and is poor but manages to get buy. Her uncle scrapes together enough money to send Kathrin to Minneapolis where her cousin Lotte has been living for just more than a year. There is work there in the flour mills. Kathrin is a smart girl and her uncle hopes she will be able to make a life for herself in America.
The flour mills are harsh, long hours for little pay. Kathrin takes classes to learn how to speak English and does so well that she is soon fluent. Near the mill is a bookshop that Kathrin likes to visit. She can’t afford to buy any of the books, but she befriends the shop owner and his nephew who let her spend hours browsing at the store. One day a woman comes into the shop and Kathrin thinks she is so beautiful that she must be a sorceress just like in the book of fairy tales the woman was looking at.
Turns out the woman, Violet, is the widow of a university professor. She is very well off and lives in one of the mansions on Summit Avenue in St. Paul. Violet is working on completing the book her husband had begun when he died, a book about fairy tales. He had collected hundreds of tales from Germany and Violet doesn’t know German. Soon Kathrin is working for Violet, translating the tales for her, living in her house, and fearfully hoping that maybe she will never have to work in the mills again.
Of course things don’t work out the way anyone plans. Violet has a scandalous past which she tries to tell Kathrin about. Kathrin misunderstands. One misunderstanding leads to others and, well, you’ll have to read the book if you want to find out what happens.
Sharratt weaves into the main story themes from the fairy tales that Kathrin is translating. An orphan girl, a sorceress, temptations, and tragedy. This is not a fantasy book, however, it is firmly rooted in reality. Sharratt represents the immigrant experience as it must have been, the hunger, the uncertainty, the hardships of life in a new country. I enjoyed the book but I didn’t love it. The thing that kept me from loving it was Kathrin herself. She is a strong, smart girl and while she is with Violet she acts that way. But as soon as she takes up with John, the bookshop owner’s nephew, she starts to act like women were “supposed” to act. Thinking about it, the contrast is the point and it is part of the whole novel’s conflict that Kathrin recover her personal strength. But oh, it was hard to read and sometimes made me cringe.
If you like fairy tales and historical novels and can bear following the plight of a character who will probably make you angry at some point, then you will probably like this book.