A Wider World
Kate Simon is best known as a travel writer, author of many popular guidebooks. Readers in the future, however, will probably know her as the author of an exceptionally vivid serial autobiography. In this sequel to the first installment of her autobiography, Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood (1982), Simon captures the pleasures and the pains, the atmosphere and the ambience of a young girl’s struggle to establish her own identity during the Depression, a period that in no way depresses her spirit of adventure and inquiry. Her experiences are presented vividly and in great detail and are organized by category: high school, men, other people’s children, adventures in Harlem, interesting women, sex, college experiences, summer vacations, experiences with the rich, and finally, the seamy and illegal side of life.
Simon’s wry and witty account of her life and times is both specific and universal. Not unlike Huck Finn, she discovers new lands to explore and, in the process, replaces naïveté and innocence with strength and wisdom. These vivid recollections, each separate but connected by the strong thread of the narrator’s personality, begin when Kate, at thirteen-and-a-half, battles with her father for the right to go to high school, a battle that marks the beginning of her struggle to be her own person. Her drive to become independent provides continuity throughout the book. Like adolescents everywhere, Kate turns from her parents to her peers for support and understanding. Her creation of a life outside the family is the focus of this book. Although Kate may not know where she is going or how she will get there, her good humor and wry acceptance of opportunities as they occur develop and expand as life moves her along.
The character of the narrator emerges as she works her way through high school and into Hunter College. It is not, however, the places but the people that shape and reveal Kate Simon. Her father and high school friends, such as Harry, Ralph, Mark, Joe, and finally Davy—with whom she lived in a fond, platonic relationship—help the narrator understand the opposite sex. Perhaps more important is what these people contribute to her discovery and understanding of the exciting world of pre-World War II Manhattan: productions of Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov, the works of D. H. Lawrence, Art Nouveau, early Russian films, tenement studios on the East River, and Isadora Duncan. Simon creates sharply etched pictures of the people she encountered, but one of the most vivid is the character she designs for herself, attempting to establish her own adolescent identity. Sporting Spanish hoop earrings in pierced ears, a long, dark gray raincoat and an ancient, dark gold Borsalino hat, Kate Simon dominates and ignores the grim poverty generally associated with memories of the Depression.
Yet she and her friends, who were extremely poor, did suffer hard times during the Depression. Since she could not live at home and go to school, a large part of her time is filled with finding and losing jobs and places to live. Simon weaves these details into the background skillfully, so that when the narrator succeeds, the reader is fully aware of what she has overcome: angry, frustrated teachers; lecherous men lurking in dark hallways; isolation in upstate New York while caring for other people’s children; finding sleeping quarters with only four dollars in her pocket; lesbian propositions at summer camp; an invitation to become a part of a polygamous family; squalid living conditions and dangerous neighbors; successful and unsuccessful attempts at reconciliation with her family; and the horror of illegal...
(The entire section is 1494 words.)