30 Women Novelists You Should Know – #23 Shelley Ettinger


Shelley Ettinger

Vera’s Will by Shelley Ettinger is a powerful family saga that spans continents and generations. You’ve probably read many novels that could be described that way. I’ll bet you’ve never read anything like Vera’s Will.

The book begins in Czarist Russia in 1903, where the Resnikoff family – Jewish and leftist – Is brutally attacked during a pogrom. We see the rampage mostly through the eyes of five-year-old Vitka, who understands less than we do about what the hate-crazed men – some of them neighbors and co-workers – are doing to her mother and father.

An outsider in so many ways

Ten years later, Vitka Resnikoff has become Vera Resnick, a modern American girl living in New Jersey, embarrassed by her parents’ immigrant ways. Vera is already an outsider: no longer Russian, not quite American. As if that’s not enough, she falls in love with another girl – the only two women in the world, they feel sure, to be so blessed and so cursed.

Years later, after her lover dies of influenza, Vera in her grief marries a punctilious man who moves her from working class Passaic, where everyone in her family is a leftist activist, to bourgeois Manhattan, where he speaks of nothing but his business. After years of loneliness, Vera falls for another woman. Vera’s husband, backed up by all the scientific experts of the day, declares that Vera is too sick to be allowed to raise their two sons.

Intertwined but alone

He takes the children away but Vera eventually finds them and follows them to suburban Detroit, where her sons grow into resentful adults. Vera nurses one of them through his WWII war injuries. He marries and has a daughter named, unwittingly, after Vera’s first, lost love. That daughter also grows up to be a lesbian, and the second storyline in the novel is hers.

Ettinger does a wonderful job of creating two crisp, lively narrators, each voice sharply distinct and suffused with character.The intertwined story of these two women, grandmother and granddaughter, who share so much but know so little about one another’s lives, create a moving and satisfying whole.

“Gals like you aren’t rare.”

They are engaged in their own struggles but also in the restless world around them. Through their eyes and their activism we see wars, McCarthyism, labor action, the civil rights movement, the rise of the women’s and lesbian/gay rights movements – a history of social change in America. When the granddaughter comes out to her brother in the 1970s, he musters the same tired scientific arguments that Vera’s husband once used. And yet, as Vera’s sister-in-law tells her in the 1940s, “Gals like you aren’t that rare. Did you think you were the only one who parts her hair on the other side?”

A surprising pleasure

Lately I’ve been reading some of the bright, brittle novels written by talented authors in their twenties and thirties. Most of these books I’ve enjoyed, and a few I’ve admired. But what a pleasure it is to read a book written by a novelist who brings a sense of history and her own lived wisdom to the task. Here’s an example:

This is more than grief, Vera knows. This is rage… This kind of fury. This kind of pain. When wrongs are done to you and yours. There is a righteous wrath that picks you up and sweeps you away. Sweeps you clean. And the anger is good, and the anger is true – but it takes you to a far country where no one can live all the time.

The world of Vera’s Will is a far but familiar country. I was sorry to leave it.

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Vera's Will COVER jpeg

Art and outrage

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire took place 104 years ago this week. It inspired grief, outrage, the birth of a union, a host of labor laws and many books, including a brilliant novel called Triangle, by Katharine Weber.

I wrote about the novel a year ago, and thought I’d share the blog post with you again during this anniversary week.

From the archives

Triangle weaves together the stories of Esther Gottesfeld, the last living survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911; her scientist granddaughter; and a feminist researcher who asks Esther to share her memories and then listens a bit too carefully. The novel is riveting and challenging, with complex characters.

Who owns history?

Weber deftly builds both the mystery at the heart of the novel and the tense drama of the Triangle inferno. Small details that at first seem to provide only texture to the story later loom with horrifying impact.

The ending of the novel sent me racing back to the beginning with a new understanding – or at least new questions – about the plot. Triangle does not yield its insights easily, which makes it the best kind of book group selection, ripe for animated discussion.

Who owns history? The person whose story you believe.

 A tragedy and a legacy

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire was a predictable and preventable tragedy that killed 146 workers – mostly young immigrant women – at a clothing factory in New York.

Triangle fire w bodies

Dozens of the workers leaped to their deaths from the top floors of the blazing building, an image that anyone who lived through 9/11 can conjure all too easily. Even more people burned to death, many of them trapped behind locked doors in flaming workrooms. Others crawled onto rickety fire escapes that collapsed and sent them plunging to the sidewalk.

More than 350,000 people marched in the streets of New York to mourn the garment workers. Outraged by their needless and excruciating deaths, factory workers organized and won many of the workplace safety laws we take for granted today.

A story less known

A year before the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, some 20,000 women who worked in garment factories had gone on strike to demand better wages, a shorter workweek (52 hours), and specific safety measures. These working class women, many of them Yiddish-speaking immigrants, drew the support of New York’s suffragists, some of whom were women from the city’s wealthiest families.

Photo: hbo.com

Photo: hbo.com

The suffragists raised funds for the workers, bailed them out of jail, and organized mass rallies to generate public solidarity. Across the city, factories conceded to the workers’ demands, acknowledged the unions, and improved workplace safety.

Photo:: UNCPressblog

Photo:: UNCPressblog

But not the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. The two owners – Max Blanck and Isaac Harris – refused to unionize and refused to address safety concerns, including workers’ calls to leave factory doors unlocked and provide functional fire escapes.

A year later, these safety issues cost 146 people their lives. Yet they cost the factory owners nothing – in fact, the two men profited from the tragedy. While they settled lawsuits by paying family members $75 for each lost life, the owners received insurance settlements of $400 for each worker killed. The two men went on to run other factories, accumulating and ignoring citations for the very safety violations that had led to the carnage at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory.


The lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire – both learned and unlearned – continue to haunt us today. A powerful novel like Triangle takes you into that world, and part of you is likely to remain there for a long, long time.

Triangle book cover

Update from Book World

Her Own Vietnam has been out in the world for four months now. Let me share a little about what that feels like for the author.

Publishing a novel is like releasing a long, silvery fish into a swift-moving river. You know your fish is out there, you catch a glimpse of it now and then, but you can never be sure exactly where it is or what is happening in its dim watery world.

Book reviews

One glimpse I get of my novel is through book reviews. Her Own Vietnam has gotten some great reviews, most recently a five-star review in the Spring 2015 edition of the magazine Foreword Reviews. You can read excerpts from all the reviews here.

Reader reviews

For me, the most meaningful reviews are the comments I get from readers, either through email or on sites like Amazon and Goodreads. Here are a few: Paul Hellweg is a male Vietnam veteran and a writer himself, with a Vietnam website (www.VietnamWarPoetry.com). He wrote:

I’ve just finished Her Own Vietnam, and reading it has been a meaningful experience. Lynn Kanter accurately portrays the long-term effects of PTSD. In particular, I liked and appreciated the acknowledgement of how people with no experience of psychological trauma cannot comprehend how the victim suffers. Like Della Brown in the novel, I’ve encountered way too many folks who think the war is all over now and I should just forget about it… I also like the way the book portrays the loneliness of a trauma survivor living in a world where no one else understands you.

On the Goodreads website, a reader wrote:

Five stars means “Drop what you’re doing and read it. This book blew me out of the water.” Her Own Vietnam gets five stars.

Each member of the cast is vividly drawn, none is a type or stereotype, yet as an ensemble they convey the complex, bitter legacy of the Vietnam War and even offer hope that we might as a people come to terms with it if we can muster the courage to look ourselves in the eye. Her Own Vietnam is a tour de force.

And on Amazon, where all of Her Own Vietnam’s reviews have been five stars, one of my favorites said:

This is a wonderful novel. It was so enthralling, I didn’t want the book to end! The characters (love, love, love Della and Charlene) and plot lines are rich, moving and powerful. Allows all of us to ask, no matter our own experience or inexperience with matters of war, incredibly difficult questions of ourselves and our society about the ravages that violent conflict has on the human race.

A special thrill

And one more glimpse: The renowned historian David Roediger (author of The Wages of Whiteness) is teaching Her Own Vietnam in his American studies class at the University of Kansas. I love the idea of young people using my book as a tool to examine and understand the Vietnam war.

Swimming away

So, my novel is swimming out there somewhere. As I stand on the riverbank, straining to see that flash of silver, I can only hope that each reader who finds Her Own Vietnam will tell one other person, “Hey, you’ve got to read this book.” Irma HOV and coffee