Portraits in a Childhood
Written by: Kate Simon
Published By: Harper and Row Publishers
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
Having recently read Bronx Accent: A Literary and Pictorial History of the Borough, I was immediately taken by some of the literary quotes. I resolved to gather up and read as many of the books mentioned in Bronx Accent as I could. One particular account of life in the Bronx that was quoted quite often in Bronx Accent came from a memoir written by Kate Simon called Bronx Primitive. While I was reading Bronx Accent, the title of Kate Simonís book nagged at me. Didnít I know this book? Hadnít I read it during my school years? Shortly after completing Bronx Accent, I took a look at the expansive library contained in my overflowing bookshelves and discovered that I did indeed own the book in question. But had I read it? The fact that I couldnít recall any of the passages quoted in the Bronx Accent book proved to me that I had not. I can only assume that I purchased this book for a college course and that we never got to it. How had a book languished in my library for so long without a page having been turned? The answer is a mystery to me, avid reader that I am. I decided that the book deserved much more respect than I had previously afforded it and made it one of two books I read over my vacation.
Bronx Primitive: Portraits of a Childhood discusses Kate Simonís early years from childhood until her teens. It begins with a discussion of how her family slowly made their way out of war-torn Poland toward the land of promise called America. As a child growing up in the poverty of Poland during World War I, Kate Simon was awed by the stories of the rich land filled with promise and luxury. Her arrival in America offered one of the many hard lessons Simon would learn in her early years Ė that not all things were as beautiful as imagined. Her name was changed as soon as she arrived, the officials at Ellis Island dubbing her Carolina upon misinterpreting her Polish birth certificate. She would no longer carry with her the name of her motherís beloved grandmother Kaila. For the rest of her life she would carry the hated name of Kate. But also gone was the poverty of living in a war-torn country. She was now a part of the colorful immigrant community that had arisen on Lafontaine Street in the Bronx, New York.
Kate Simonís memoir of life as a young girl coming of age in the Bronx is captivating. Kate Simonís descriptiveness gives the reader a clear view of her family and her neighborhood and its inhabitants. From the very first page, we are made to realize that the assumption that the life of a child is filled with joy and careless abandon is a myth. Although the stresses of adult life are different, a childís life is no less stressful. As Simon discusses turning points and realizations in her childhood, we nod in sympathy, thinking back to our days as children. We yearned to understand the mysteries of adulthood, yet were fearful of this knowledge at the same time. Although she is incredibly blunt about the horrific moments in her life, her satirical style adds levity, making the memoir an enjoyable experience and not one bent on misery and drudgery.
For this reader, drinking in the musings of Kate Simon was like being transported back to my own childhood. The author discusses meals which my own Grandmother often served us as children. Games played by Simon as a child were very similar to the games played by myself. Simonís tomboyish ways were a mirror image of my own. Growing up with ethnic grandparents and modernized parents, I saw the best and worst of both worlds as described by Simon. Reading Bronx Primitive - minus some very shocking moments in the authorís life - was like turning back the clock and experiencing my own childhood again. I felt a kinship to the author that is rare when reading a memoir. When an author writes a story that makes the reader feel like a close friend, there is something truly remarkable about that author and his/her creation. Kate Simon is a remarkable writer and her memoir, Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood, a book definitely worth the read!