On Bittersweet Place
By Ronna Wineberg
Relegation Books: Sept. 1, 2014
On Bittersweet Place is the coming-of-age tale of Lena Czernitski, a 12-year-old girl living in Chicago with her Russian immigrant family during the 1920s. First-time novelist Ronna Wineberg explores her own family history through Lena’s extended family, most of whom are living in a crowded apartment in the Jewish neighborhood near Maxwell Street. Wineberg does an outstanding job of capturing the universal immigrant experience, in this case through the specific example of Russian Jews who have fled the pogroms, and the vibrant and unpredictable nature of life in Roaring 20’s Chicago.
Lena’s first-person narration reveals her to be a bright, curious girl confused by both the adult world and by the challenges of adapting to life in America. She is confronted by several conflicts: an uncle who is a con artist and a degenerate, an emotionally complex mother, the usual adolescent dramas, and, eventually, the tension that develops as she begins to become “American” and modern, while the adults around her remain Russian and traditional. Her coming of age is indeed a bittersweet place, but it’s just the first of many “places” in what one can assume will be a long and very American life.
The narration is also the source of the one problematic aspect of On Bittersweet Place. Lena’s voice is perhaps too faithful to that of a young girl, in the sense that she writes like a (precocious) 12-year-old. The sentences tend to be short and direct, so the narrative doesn’t flow as smoothly as it could. On one hand, this narrative choice may be a shrewd attempt by Wineberg to make her novel appealing to both YA and adult readers, yet I kept thinking it would have been better to tell the story through the voice of an adult Lena looking back at her difficult adolescence.
Still, On Bittersweet Place is a solid addition to the literature of the immigrant experience, a variation on Betty Smith’s classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. In fact, many of Lena’s experiences are similar to those undergone by the much-loved Francie in the slums of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Perhaps On Bittersweet Place too will be read by young people who will grow up to treasure it as adults.