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Book Review: West Side Girl

West Side GirlAnita Solick Oswald. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, June 19, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 202 pages. 

Reviewed by Susan Gaspar.

West Side Girl is a book you didn’t know you needed. It’s warmly and generously written, and you are instantly transported back to a time when it was safe to play outside in the streets and alleyways and to imagine yourself a bold adventurer in your own neighborhood. The book harnesses a free-wheeling, childlike energy that most of us have long forgotten or pushed aside in favor of more sophisticated and worldly pursuits. 

The book is a loving memoir of a childhood spent in Chicago’s then-waning West Garfield Park neighborhood during the 1950s and early 1960s. Its pages are filled with fascinating and colorful characters who surround a young girl as she learns about the world via her family, friends, neighbors, and teachers. It is impossible to resist the warm embrace of the hardworking and lovable Solick family, evident from the first chapter.   

One memory at a time, we are immersed into the imaginative mind of Anita Solick, whose dreams and goals propel her through her youth at full speed. We come to know her parents, grandparents, and siblings, and to understand what life was like on the west side of Chicago at that time. If you are a Chicago native, you will revel at the detailed descriptions of locations lost to the ages, and at the first-hand account of the workings of a great American city in an era of powerful social change. 

I need to speak for a moment about Anita’s mother, Helen. My love for her grew with each turn of the page. She is a character worthy of her own book, I think, and her quirks and super-powers engaged me each time she was mentioned. The family dynamics here are raw and real and keep you securely buckled into the story until the very last pages.   

In addition to Anita’s family, you meet the constant stream of fast-made friends in her diverse and shifting neighborhood. Immigrant children from all over the globe pass through—families from Italy, Ireland, Greece, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Romania, and Poland, for starters—all searching for a better life. Apartment living has its own unique charms and nightmares, and we get a taste of both here. We learn to smartly navigate the streets and their occupants alongside Anita and her sister Barb, and we are better for it. 

There are gypsy children, demanding nuns, eccentric dance teachers, and assorted desperate souls in search of a haven in a changing world. We come to love them all, albeit some more than others. The chapter about a memorable and poignant Christmas Eve brought tears to my eyes, and I was deeply touched by the quick kindness and selfless sacrifices shown to a desperate mother and her child in a time of true need. And two chapters later I found myself laughing at the outlandishly goofy auditions for the school’s variety show.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that many of the chapters are centered on the neighborhood’s Catholic parish—the unspoken hub for everyone who called that neighborhood home. Church, school, social activities, and business connections all seemed to revolve around St. Mel’s. That said, there are descriptions of other neighborhood landmarks that paint a vivid picture of a different time. The Marbro Theater, a lavish old-world cinema house down the block, was a favorite. I could imagine the thrill of seeing a show there amid the grandeur of gold leaf and velvet. 

The childhood adventures and discoveries in these chapters have a loose, free-associative feel, and the book unravels like a developing sepia-toned photograph that reveals a bit more of the complete picture as you turn each page. According to the author’s note, the book was compiled of short stories, and the transitions between them range from a character’s arrival to a change of season to a new activity at school.       

As Anita grows older, she encounters some personal disappointments as well as racial integration at her school, and her first taste of racism is a harsh pill to swallow. Why won’t some of her classmates dance with the black kids? Why is it a big deal to some people? Childhood innocence is grappled with and fought for in these stories, which serves to ground the book in reality so that nostalgia doesn’t blur the truth. 

This book makes an impression that will last quite some time. It is honest, from the heart, and filled with details that engage the reader from the first few lines. It is impossible not to root for Anita and her family and friends, or to squelch the rage felt at injustices large and small. And, as an inspiring touch of social activism, the author donates any profits from book sales to charities that help at-risk children on Chicago’s West Side.

At its core, this book is a slice of Americana at a time when America was opening new doors and stretching its limbs. Light was seeping through societal cracks and reaching new places, and Americans responded in a wide variety of ways. The very definition of what it was to be an American was shifting. The country was coming of age, and Anita Solick was too. It is a pleasure to bear witness to her place in it all, to see events and places through her eyes, and to get to know this West Side girl.


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