Author: Cynthia Drew

Publisher: Ethian Press

ISBN: 978-1-56474-514-9

According to Hasia Diner, author of Lower East Side memories: A Jewish place in America, the Lower East Side of New York City is especially remembered as a place of Jewish beginnings in contemporary, impoverished Ashkenazi American Jewish culture. It is within this environment that Cynthia Drew sets most of her debut novel, City of Slaughter where her primary focus concerns the lives of two orphan children, fourteen-year-old Carsie and her ten-year-old sister Lilia Akselrod.

Prior to developing the story of the Akselrod children, Drew devotes considerable ink to the Russian Pogroms and how they affected the Akselrod family while they lived in the Pale of Settlement (a term to denote a region of Imperial Russia wherein permanent residency by Jews was permitted and beyond which Jewish permanent residency was generally prohibited).

Unfortunately, it is here where the two youngsters witness the murder of their parents at the hands of the cold-blooded Russian Cossacks.

On May 25th 1900 the sisters leave Russia and, after enduring severe hardship, miraculously find their way to New York's Lower East Side where they are taken in by their teenaged opium addicted aunt Shalva and her good-for-nothing husband Moishe. However, as the sisters will shortly discover, they may have fled the Czar's tyranny, but New York City at the turn of the last century was not exactly a bowl of cherries and they will experience extreme poverty, atrocious living conditions, despotism of sweatshop bosses and slum landlords. In other words, life was more than just poverty and as Carsie states “it had battered people so often they could not live any other way.

No doubt, Drew has done a great of research and throughout her novel Drew looks back on the defining moments and social issues of the era and through her characters and their personal lives integrates these themes into her yarn. Included are Emma Goldman and her political activism concerning women's rights and other social issues, poor working conditions, widespread child labor where children are deprived of their childhood and their ability to attend regular school, criminal elements that populated the Lower East Side including Carsie's boyfriend, Arnold Rothstein, who jilts her. Incidentally, Rothstein was a racketeer and considered to be the head of the Jewish mob in New York. He was also reputed to have been involved with conspiring to fix the 1919 World Series. We read about the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire where Lilia worked and which caught fire in 1911. At the time the fire was considered to be the deadliest disaster in the history of New York City causing the death of one hundred and forty six workers all because the employers were never interested in the safety and working conditions of their employees. Another important theme are the personal relationships between spouses wherein wives are considered as chattel and are put on earth to bear children and serve their authoritarian husbands. And not to be left out is some of the chicanery that existed where con artists defrauded thousands of people of their life savings. All making for some very colorful and fascinating reading capturing an important era in American history.

My only gripe about this novel is that there is a great deal going on wherein Drew tries to integrate too many themes rather than focusing and developing a few. At times I felt like I was reading the history of the Lower East Side at the turn of the last century rather than a novel. Notwithstanding, it was still a delightful read and I look forward to hearing more from this author.

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