Any book about a young girl growing up in a poor immigrant neighborhood in a large city sometime in the early part of the last century faces comparison to Betty Smith's classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and usually suffers for it. Ronna Wineberg's first novel, On Bittersweet Place, is no exception.
On Bittersweet Place tells the story of Lena Czernitski, who fled Belilovka, Ukraine, to Chicago with her family in 1922, when she was ten. Three years later, when the book begins, she is living with her parents, brother, and two uncles in a crowded apartment on Bittersweet Place, a one-block stretch of Uptown. The novel follows her through three more years during which she deals with death, child molestation, anti-Semitism, and mean teachers; learns to appreciate her parents as complex individuals; develops skills as an artist; and falls in love with a nice Jewish boy named Max who regularly schleps up from Lawndale to hang out at Montrose Beach and woos her with facts about the origins of Chicago street names. (Bittersweet, while conveniently symbolic, is also a vine.)
Lena narrates all of this in simple declarative sentences: "I was the tallest in my class and the oldest. I hated this and felt ashamed. When my parents first enrolled me there, I was just learning English. The principal assigned me to the youngest group. I felt then as if I'd been brought to another new country, with rules and people I didn't understand." This makes the book easy to read, but it doesn't quite convey the confusion of suddenly being immersed in a new language in a new school in a new country.
The limitations of Wineberg's language also prevent Lena's city from fully coming to life. The 20s in the Czernitski household don't quite roar—there are no wild parties, no jazz, and only a single bottle of special-occasion schnapps, obtained with great difficulty—but there's no sense of what the surrounding blocks of Uptown or the Maxwell Street Market, where the family shops, might have been like, only that Max's upper-class neighborhood is more quiet and spacious. Disappointingly, Lena's descriptions of Chicago come off as generic, not specific to any time period.
The best and most powerful sections of On Bittersweet Place are the ones that concern Lena's parents, Reesa and Chaim (aka Henry), who were brought together in an arranged marriage and whose loyalty to each other is frequently at odds with a fundamental difference in temperaments and the scars of their shared history: while he went ahead to America to earn money to bring the rest of the family over and fell in love with a beautiful, gentle, and Gentile woman, she was left behind with the children in Belilovka to face a war and a devastating pogrom. Even filtered through Lena's limited and subjective first-person narration (she vastly prefers her charming father), their pain, anger, and guilt is compelling. Maybe On Bittersweet Place's greatest flaw is that their marriage is more interesting than Lena's rather predictable coming of age.