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New Books Network Interview: Alice Sherman Simpson

An elegant woman in a red dress from the early 20th century stands against a backdrop of New York skyscrapers; cover of Alice Sherman Simpson's The Winthrop Agreement

The United States of America is full of people whose ancestors came from overseas. Some traveled under duress; others sought a better life. For a while, in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, people flooded in from Eastern Europe and the Russian Empire, seeking not only economic advantages but freedom from religious persecution. As discussed in my most recent New Books Network interview with Alice Sherman Simpson, one such young woman is Rivkah Milmanovich, from Lithuania, who travels across the Atlantic with high hopes that reality cannot quite fulfill.

Renamed Rivkah Milman, the new immigrant raises her daughter, Miriam, among the tenements and sweatshops of New York. Life is hard, yet like so many immigrants, Miriam manages to get an education and, with a little help from an unexpected quarter, lifts herself out of poverty. As Mimi, dress designer for New York high society, she just might fulfill her mother’s dreams after all. As for what constitutes The Winthrop Agreement, you’ll have to read the book to find out.

As always, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

Two lines of boxy buildings joined by clotheslines filled with linen of various sizes

Rivkah Milman is just one of the thousands of young women who fled their homes in Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century, looking for better prospects in New York—where the streets, people said, would be paved with gold. In Rivkah’s case, she is sixteen and pregnant, sailing to join her husband, who doesn’t even bother to meet her at the docks.

Rivkah struggles, raising her daughter in a tenement and keeping that shoddy roof over their heads through endless hours of sewing piecework for a sweatshop. But tough as Rivkah’s life is, this is really the story of her daughter, Miriam, who through a colossal but familiar misjudgment falls under the spell of Frederick Winthrop, a rich and immoral playboy who seeks out underage girls. But with help from a family friend, Mimi succeeds in separating herself from her difficult childhood in pursuit of a better life.

Miriam, who adopts the name Mimi to signal her break with the past, has always longed to become not just a seamstress but an haute couture designer. And with skill and determination, she makes progress. But the closer she comes to achieving her goals, the more contact she has with the wealthy Winthrop family. Alice Sherman Simpson keeps us on the edge of our seats as we wait to find out how these competing priorities will work themselves out.

Image: New York City tenements, ca. 1900, public domain via the US Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons.

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