It’s the end of the 19th century, and 16-year-old Minna Losk, a mail-order bride from Odessa, is shipped to America to wed a middle-aged observant Jew whose unlikely home is a one-room hut built into a hillside in the Dakota Territory. A biblical scholar in his native Russia, the groom clings defiantly to traditions that make him unable to farm on holy days, leaving his teenage sons (his first wife abandoned the family) to battle the recalcitrant land.
Minna’s life has been an appalling accrual of hardships, yet she manages to thrive on the prairie. She works ingeniously with homemade paste and magazine pages to whitewash the mud walls of the hovel and cannily rations the food stores in winter.
But in bed with her husband, Max, Minna discovers new anguish, observing “the daylight mining his balding places, his lips too pink and full and the bottom one hanging, lazy and timid and greedy all at once.” Eyes pressed shut, she counts her way through her conjugal duties, alarmed at the fervor with which he prays for another child. It is Max’s sons who stir her affections—and in the case of handsome 18-year-old Samuel, her sexual longings. Even as she discovers that she loves this family, life in the wilderness comes to feel like an unendurable sentence, one that tests her strong, independent spirit.
In this mythic rendition of the American immigrant narrative, Solomon’s quirky prose finds the wondrous in the ordinary and vividly depicts the complex collisions between the Old World and the New.
NOODLE PUDDING WITH FRESH CILANTRO AND CORN
Prep time: 28 minutes
Cooking time: 25 to 30 minutes
6 tablespoons butter, melted
8 ounces medium egg noodles
4 ounces low-fat cream cheese, slightly softened
1 cup low-fat sour cream
3 eggs, separated
½ cup corn kernels, cooked
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
½ cup sugar
3 tablespoons dry bread crumbs
1. Preheat the oven to 350°. Coat eight 8-to-10-ounce ramekins with a small amount of the butter. Cook the noodles in boiling, lightly salted water. Drain and rinse the noodles. Shake out all the excess water. Put the noodles in a bowl, and toss with the remaining melted butter, reserving ½ tablespoon.
2. In a blender, puree together the cream cheese, sour cream, a pinch of salt and the egg yolks. Add to the noodles, and mix well. Toss the corn and cilantro with the noodles.
3. Beat the egg whites with the sugar until shiny and stiff. Gently fold the whipped whites into the noodles. Pour the mixture into the ramekins.
4. Heat the remaining ½ tablespoon butter in a sauté pan, and cook the bread crumbs until lightly browned. Sprinkle the crumbs evenly over the top of the noodles. Place the ramekins on a baking sheet, and bake 25 to 30 minutes or until the noodles are puffed and the top is golden brown. This can be prepared a day ahead and reheated.