In 1913, the Jewish-Russian Treynovsky family leaves their country to start a new life abroad. Malka Treynovsky’s mother has family in South Africa, so she knows they’ll have a little help resettling. Malka’s father, however, has other things in mind and tricks the family into moving to America instead. All the rumors of great wealth and opportunity prove false, and the family moves into a tenement on the Lower East Side; their situation is just as dire as it was back in Russia. Everyone in the family, even the youngest children, must bring home money daily if they want to eat.
Little by little, the family falls apart. Malka is run over by a horse and crippled for life; already stretched too thin to take on another burden, her family abandons her. The man who accidentally ran her over, Mr. Dinello, takes her into his Italian Catholic home. It is there that Malka learns the skills that will change her life. Mr. Dinello sells Italian ices on Orchard Street, and Malka grows up learning all about the ice cream business. As she gets older, gets married, and builds her empire, she transforms herself into Lillian Dunkle, The Ice Cream Queen. She and her husband have lucrative patents and franchises, and through sheer determination, little homely, crippled Malka Treynovsky still manages to grow up and endear herself to the American public as a motherly Jewish-Italian icon; she even has her own television show.
But when we meet her, life has already taken its course. Lillian Dunkle is an eighty-something year old woman on trial for tax evasion. She’s still famous and all over the tabloids, but only because she’s a scandalous social pariah who has enraptured everyone with her very public downfall. In addition to the tax evasion and all the dirt the tabloids are digging up about her past, it turns out that the beloved Ice Cream Queen, who built her empire on a treat often tied to childhood, doesn’t actually like children very much either!
I love how Gilman weaves bits of history into the plot. Probably the best thing about The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street is Malka/Lillian herself. It’s not often that a woman in her eighties gets to star as an antihero. She’s unapologetically confident about her skills and unafraid to demand the proper recognition for her ideas and contributions. She knows she has earned her own little place in American history, and she fully intends to claim it whether people like it or not. Luckily, Gilman took care to give Lillian dimension; readers get to see exactly why Lillian is the way she is. I also liked the earlier parts of the book, when Lillian still lived in the tenements. Gilman does a great job of showing how poverty affects immigrant women; although the story focuses on Lillian’s family, it’s easy to imagine their story being played out across the tenements of New York in the early twentieth century. The book isn’t without its faults — Lillian’s tendency to address readers as “darlings” started to grate on my nerves, and at 505 pages, I felt some parts were a little too dragged out — but it’s still an entertaining summer read that should be enjoyed alongside a big bowl of ice cream.
The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street was published in June 2014 by Grand Central Publishing, an imprint of Hachette Book Group.