Book Review: “Red Mansions” by Cynthia Drew
Cynthia Drew published City of Slaughter, her first novel, in 2013 (WNC Woman review in April). Her compelling story is set in Manhattan’s garment industry in the early 1900s. Carsie Akselrod, the protagonist, guides readers from a rural Russian shtetl to dynamic New York City. In an interview at the New York Book Festival, Drew said, “Everything we see on TV and in the movies romanticizes the period … but New York City in 1900 was anything but romantic; it was smelly and dirty and crowded … people fought to stay alive.”
Carsie’s saga continues in Red Mansions during the Roaring Twenties, another highly romanticized era. While a small minority swilled gin and danced the Charleston, most workers still toiled long hours for a pittance and lived in stinking tenements. What had changed was the nation’s social conscience and women activists striving to improve life for the working class. Well acquainted with drudgery and poverty, Carsie excels in her efforts. As the story opens, she is happily married to lawyer Charles “Chat” Nussbaum, who is proud of Carsie’s refusal to “define herself by her marriage and his accomplishments.” In fact, he encourages her and assists her with legal issues.
That Carsie now makes and sells hats—“the embodiment of chic in the sophisticated reaches of couture”—from their mansion on the Upper East Side definitely indicates a new era. Ever the scholar, she continues to study English at the Socialist Literary League and reads voraciously. She also continues her earlier efforts to teach reading and math to children working in the sweat shops; she generously supports the Free Milk Fund for Babies; and she prepares homeless children for the “orphan trains.”
When her two daughters reach school age, Carsie determines that they will not attend a school for privileged children. Instead, she teaches Sarit and Sophie to make hats and schools them at home, with a heavy focus on literature and history.
When the girls are older, she struggles to negotiate peace with them as well as her difficult mother-in-law, Estelle Nussbaum. That Estelle had longed for Chat to marry a woman who would keep a kosher home and produce abundant grandchildren is understandable. But Estelle is an arrogant, vicious woman determined to destroy Carsie before even meeting her. How Carsie handles Estelle’s insults and taunts is laudable. And there is no dearth of issues to deal with where her daughters are concerned. If Sarit allowed herself to accept her mother’s aesthetic, and Sophie tried to be a tad less vacuous, they would be more likeable characters.
As in City of Slaughter, the interaction between the fictional and historical characters gives the story authenticity and vitality. Carsie and Chat, a “power couple” in the new social movement, lavishly entertain—and are entertained by—a prestigious circle that includes Margaret Sanger; William Randolph and Millicent Hearst; and, at the height of their scandalous affair, Georgia O’Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz. Cameo appearances include poet Ezra Pound and Arnold Rothstein, leader of New York’s Jewish Mafia.
As in real life, the novel’s power couples, including Chat and Carsie, topple from their dizzying heights due to a combination of character flaws and fate. On her own again, Carsie, as she works incessantly for her family’s survival, becomes the “every woman” of the Roaring Twenties’ seamier side. An astute businesswoman, she earns enough profit as the landlady of a tenement block in Hell’s Kitchen to reopen her dress shop. When negotiating with Polly Adler, historically New York City’s most celebrated madam, Carsie holds her own. At home, she tenderly nurses a paralyzed family member for six years; she also houses her mother-in-law and another equally despicable relative. Despite bouts of exhaustion and financial struggles, Carsie remains determined to launch Sarit and Sophie in careers that will make them independent women.
Drew’s solid writing carries the reader forward with focus and realism. She succinctly presents the era’s issues and paints her characters—even the outrageous people—vividly but believably. Through each, she gives readers a view of the many. For example, Renna Felder, a filthy, starving, lice-ridden orphan living in cardboard boxes in the notorious Gas House District represents the city’s hundreds, perhaps thousands, of abused and homeless children. Conversely, social snobbery is depicted through characters like the owner of a posh restaurant. When forced to seat a dowdy, raucous woman, he shivers “. . . at the thought of the woman sitting in one of his pink petit-point chairs.”
As she did with the early 1900s in City of Slaughter, Cynthia Drew in Red Mansions, pulls the Roaring Twenties into full focus with her diligent research and plausible fictional characters. And she’s not done yet; she’s planning a third book dealing with American women’s rights after World War II.
BIO: Cynthia Drew’s short stories have appeared in numerous literary journals including Rapid River (Short Fiction Prize, 2005), Mountainland (Humor Prize 2004), Perigee, Middle English Review and Taj Mahal, and in the anthologies New Century Voices and Scratch (as a winter quarterly winner, 2009) among others. She teaches writing at the University of North Carolina Asheville’s Reuter Center, and writes occasional essays for Western North Carolina Woman Magazine.
Her debut historical novel, City of Slaughter, is the recipient of the Forward National Literature Awards’ silver medallion for Historical Fiction, and the Mother Vine award for Best Historical Fiction 2013.
Her children’s book, Where Do Missing Things Go?, was awarded the Mom’s Choice Award Silver award for Inspirational and Motivational material for 5 ~ 8 year-olds.
A screenplay titled Stealing First, written with her playwright sister, Joan Golden, finished in the top three in the Family/Teen division in StoryPro’s 2008 competition, was selected as a quarter finalist in the 2010 Page International contest and finished in the finals in Screenplay Festival’s 2009 contest.
She is a practicing Private Investigator, loves to travel, garden and cook and lives with her photographer husband, Ken, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains outside.
Contact: 828-301-8697 or cynthiadrew.com.
VIEW FROM MY LIBRARY
(Tabby Cat Par Excellence)
Regarding the 4,000 piece puzzle that Roy and I have been working on for almost four months, the good news is that we’re down to about 300 pieces. The bad news is that the pieces are all sky. Is that a challenge or what!
Regarding the four boy cats living in the hinterlands of the house, which is just fine with me, Buddy, Tooley, and Figaro seem to have accepted Munchkin the Manx. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Munchkin has declared Buddy’s tail his favorite toy, perhaps because he doesn’t have one. At the slightest “wag,” Munchkin gleefully pounces. Since he’s long past the starveling stage, that’s a lot of bounce per ounce. Buddy, as the alpha cat around here, is not pleased, but Munchkin lives in his own little world and couldn’t care less. Buddy could, of course, solve the problem by sitting on his tail, but, just between us girls, I think he likes the attention.