Sense of History Prods Her Fiction

Milwaukee Journal, Interview by Robert W. Wells
Aug. 15, 1982

         From childhood, Meredith Tax said on a recent Milwaukee visit, she wanted to write. As a student at Brandeis University, she was trying. But then she came to a realization:

            “I didn’t have anything to write about yet. I really didn’t have much to say. I decided I had to see a little more of life before I was ready to do a novel.”
 
            That novel turned out to be Rivington Street, published recently by Morrow and reviewed here July 1. It was a July Literary Guild dual selection, a paperback version is planned and, all in all, the former Milwaukeean considers that, in view of the fate of most first novels, “I‘ve been very lucky.”
 
            After Brandeis, Tax went to London on a Fulbright fellowship, then worked in Boston, Chicago and New York at a variety of jobs.
 
            “I’ve been a teacher, a secretary, an editorial assistant, a factory worker. I prepared to be a teacher just at the point when they stopped hiring. But all those jobs have been useful to me as a writer, showing me how different people work and live.”
 
            Tax has also been active in the women’s movement, starting in Boston in 1968. She continued her involvement in Chicago and in New York City, where she has lived since 976.
 
            One of her two pervious books, Families, was for young children, written at a time when she was newly divorced and raising a daughter, now 8 years old. The purspoe of the book was to show that the traditional family, with a father and mother under the same roof, was not the only kind children experience and that other types of families can be all right, too.
 
            The Rising of the Women, her fist book for adults, including a chaper about the shirtwaist workers’ strike of 1909, an event that also figures in Rivington Street. In researching the book about rebellious women, Tax got interested in the history of Jewish immigrants who fled persecution to come to America, leading her into the novel.
 
            It starts in Russia at the time of a notorious pogrom in Kishinev in 1903, when 42 Jews were killed and numerous others injured. English reporters and a reporter for Hearst were there, so it couldn’t be hushed up, Tax said. The pogrom was organized by the chief of police on orders from the czarist government.
 
            Like the characters in her book, some of the threatened Jews decided to eimigrate. Families were split between those who left and those who stayed.
 
            “One of the things my book is about is how painful it was for families to be divided by geography and history,” Tax said. “It deals with three generations, ending with World War I, by which time the third generation had been Americanized.
 
            “This is one of the few novels about Jews in New York that isn’t about upward mobility. With one exception, the people in the novel don’t get rich. They are involved in various social movements—the garment workers’ union, left-wing politics, the suffrage movement. The characters range from garment manufacturers to meat peddlers to anarchists.
 
            Some of the necessary research had already been done for her The Rising of the Women but a lot more was necessary before the novel could be written.
 
            “The facts are accurate, right down to the names of those killed in the pogrom,” Tax said. “People have told me that the book makes the histories of their parents and grandparents understandable. My own grandparents just didn't talk about those days.
 
            "It was too painful for people of that generation. Besides, their children were in a rush to get Americanized and didn't want to hear, and the grandchildren were too young.
 
            "My grandmother came to the US to marry a cousin she barely knew, which coulda't have been easy. In my book, I tried to show the kind of bravery it took to come to a place where you didn't know what might happen, then to survive and become decent people."
 
            The author's father, Archie Tax, a physician, practiced on Milwaukee's West Side and was on the board of Mount Sinai Hospital. Her widowed mother, Martha, lives in Whitefish Bay....
 
            Rivington Street took two years to write, with an advance from the publisher making it possible for Tax to work on It full time. She has a contract for a sequel, which will carry the families up to World War II.
 
            As a book reviewer, Tax said, she read historical romances that had little to do with anything that happens in real life. She is dealing with history more realistically. Her hope is that, particularly in paperback, she can reach a lot of readers who don't ordinarily pick up history books.
 
            "Most people don't read history," she said, "unless you can find a way to get such books into the drug stores and bus stations.”
Copyright © Meredith Tax 2010. All Rights Reserved.