I met my first bubbie when in my early 20s and living in a predominantly Jewish suburb of Baltimore. My boss’s wife invited me to a family gathering and explained that “bubbie” was the Jewish term for grandmother. Her bubbie, a bored matriarch in a beige sweater set, advised me that I needed to get married if I was going to continue working for her granddaughter’s husband. Only grandmothers and mobsters can deliver such straightforward counsel–half compliment and half threat–without raising eyebrows. I pictured that wise and direct bubbie when reading the first-person account of Lillian Dunkle, better known as The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street.
Dunkle is the sweet, chilly concoction of author Susan Jane Gilman. The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street is Gilman’s first novel. Lillian Dunkle begins by telling us that she is in legal trouble and wants to set the record straight. She then proceeds to tell her epic life story–from poor Russian immigrant living in a tenement house on Orchard Street to ice cream and media empress dubbed the “Ice Cream Queen of America” by President Eisenhower. Lillian interrupts her reveries only to update her “darlings” on current events or to call famous people or detractors names in Yiddish.
This is a funny book with serious heart. Gilman is a journalist and humorist whose three previous books are nonfiction. She dedicates The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street to Frank McCourt, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning immigrant memoir Angela’s Ashes. McCourt was Gilman’s English teacher and mentor at Stuyvesant High School in New York. You can learn more about Gilman at her author website, susanjanegilman.com.