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Book Review: Tell Me a Story: Stories from a Childhood in Old New York by Bea Gold

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More often than not, self-published books are little more than egotistical exercises, but not so Bea Gold’s coffee table collection of 36 single-page stories about a young girl growing up in New York City in the ’30s and ’40s, Tell Me a Story: Stories From a Childhood in Old New York. Each of the short pieces is accompanied by one of the author’s own paintings by way of illustration. The stories, Gold insists, are fictional, but they clearly have an anchor in real life experience. They may be fiction, but they have the feel of memoir, and there is nothing wrong with that.

The stories themselves, while not perfect, are packed with the truth of the Jewish experience in the New York of the period approaching the middle of the last century. If, like me, you remember catching the local at Ave. U and changing at Kings Highway for the express train into the City, if you remember Lindy’s in Sheepshead Bay, if you remember visiting rich relatives on Ocean Parkway, any imperfections in the telling will melt away in your own fond memories. On the other hand, if you haven’t eaten “gribenes,” watched your grandfather sip hot tea through a sugar cube, or spent a summer in the “mountains,” you may be inclined to be less forgiving.

The problems, such as they are, are in some sense endemic to the genre. Gold’s choice to treat each story as complete in and of itself leads her to a lot of repetition. In three different stories we are told about the narrator’s mother’s decision to discontinue her studies at the High School of Music and Art, and we are told in what seem like almost the same exact words. Parenthetical explanations of Yiddish terms are repeated, as are identifications of relatives and friends. Of course, if the book is intended for coffee tables, and not meant to be read as a whole, these kinds of repetitions more than likely won’t be noticed. On the other hand if you read the stories consecutively, the repetitions can be annoying.

In her introduction to Tell Me a Story, Gold points out that the stories are written from the child’s point of view at different ages. At best, though, the point of view in many of the stories is inconsistent. There are clearly times when an adult is looking back at her childhood. In the story called “The Flower Lady,” talking about a farmer in their summer in the Catskills, she calls him “our epicure teacher.” The cooking in the community kitchen created “a symphony of smells.” This is the language of an adult looking back on her past, as she makes crystal clear in the story’s concluding paragraph. Often even when the child is speaking, her language and phrasing are anything but childlike. Nonetheless, the voice of the child, when she actually speaks as a child, as in her description of her mother cleaning the freshly killed chicken for soup, is much less literary and quite endearing in its simplicity.

Gold’s paintings are something special. She is a member of the Silver Lake Art Collective in Los Angeles, and her work has a primitive emotional quality bathed in vibrant color. Her past is not played out in fuzzy pastels; it lives on in the brightness of her palette. A visit to her blog will give you a better idea of her painting than anything I could add. Taken together, the stories and the paintings are an emotional tribute to a time and place perhaps gone but not yet forgotten.

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