Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
Florence, who is passionate about her swimming, plans to be one of the first women to swim the English Channel. She lives and trains in the ocean off Atlantic City and its famous Boardwalk. She is vivacious and strong, loved by all who know her.
Very early in the book, she drowns. This shocking tragedy shrouds the story of the people who were close to her. Joseph her father, Esther her mother, Fannie her very pregnant elder sister, and Gussie her seven-year-old niece. Close to the family are Isaac, Fannie’s husband, Anna an immigrant fleeing 1930’s Germany and its persecution of the Jews, and Stuart, Florence’s coach.
Rachel Beanland has taken family history and skillfully threaded events from their lives as Jewish immigrants to 1934 America into this absorbing story. She vividly evokes the times, post WW1 when life was a struggle, but hard work paid dividends. Her detailed account of her characters’ lives, their food, clothes, their rituals and customs is so well written it is surprising to learn this is her first novel.
One of the pleasures of reviewing books such as this gives an opportunity to discover and learn, as well as marvel at the lives of those who dare to fight for change. An instance that I found staggering, was the reference to ‘Boardwalk Babies’. Dr Couney in New York, and ahead of his time, designed an incubator to support premature babies. In order to raise funds for the costly exercise, babies were displayed on the boardwalks of Coney Island and Atlantic City. The public paid 25c to view the little ones, some who were close to death. Records show that over 6,000 babies were saved. Some survive to this day, although up to three months premature. Not until the 1950’s were incubators widely introduced.
The plight of the mothers of those babies is chilling in its pathos. In the book, Fannie, whose baby survived just three days after being born two months prematurely, was called by nurses on the Boardwalk to advise that her tiny baby was close to death.
Women’s experiences in 1930’s America varies enormously from those today. Not just medically and psychologically as the book relates so well, but often they were beholden to someone, perhaps husband or parent.
Anna reads to Fannie during her long stay in hospital. Her choice is Tender is the Night. Rosemary, a character in F Scott Fitzgerald’s book, rejected this path, in favour of a more independent way of life. This strikes a chord with Fannie, especially.
Charm exists in many ways, often because of Gussie. She, aged seven, is hoping to marry handsome life guard Stuart (almost twenty years older). She presents a small stone on which she has painted two sea horses. It is sweetly touching and a child’s devotion is beautifully portrayed, both with her declaration and Stuart’s sensitive reaction.
The characters interact in different ways, but it’s the wisdom and sensitivity of Joseph that is unforgettable. Sadly, he realises his older daughter may drown more slowly, married to a greedy, unhappy and dishonest man. He thinks maybe that he has not lost Florence completely. She could be found in the people who loved her most.
Drama is powerful from the day Florence drowns. Esther, her grieving mother, begs all those close to Fannie not to convey the terrible news to her. This leads to a web of intricate complications. It makes the book difficult to put down.
Florence will swim forever in the hearts of many who have the good fortune to read her story. Her spirit affected the lives of those close to her and inspired a wonderful piece of writing by one of her descendants.
Florence Adler Swims Forever
by Rachel Beanland
Simon and Schuster
ISBN 978 17611 0018 5