After my dog died, I was looking to sink into a book that I knew would keep me occupied while I also tried to get used to being down the shore without her. I’ve read a bunch of Pam Jenoff’s books, and have marked them all “aggressively fine.” I saw the title of The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach and thought great: sweep me away to WW II England, ahoy!
Except Chelsea Beach doesn’t refer to anything in England. Instead, it’s Chelsea Beach in Atlantic City, about 30 miles from where I took this picture.
My fault! Though the book does eventually move to England, the bulk of the narrative is set in Philadelphia and in this part of Absecon Island. Adelia Montforte is a 16-year-old Italian teenager whose parents somehow get her on a boat to the U.S. in 1941. She’s Jewish, and her parents are political activists. They know the writing is on the wall and send her to safety. Adelia arrives in Philadelphia to stay with an aunt and uncle, who also rent a place down the shore in the summer.
Next door is the Connally family, a boisterous group with four sons. She spends the summer with them, and then becomes a fixture in their home during the school year. Given the time period, and four sons, you can guess that war is going to affect this family. I won’t say how. But in her own feelings of hopelessness, Monteforte becomes a typist then cub reporter and photographer for the Washington Post, first in Washington, D.C. then in London. And of course, improbably, her path crosses with this family again overseas.
Like Janoff’s other books, it’s aggressively fine, but some details about the Atlantic City part bugged. Jenoff writes that farm stands along the Black Horse Pike had cherries in late August, when they’re not in season then. She has two characters kissing on the bay-side of Absecon Island at sunrise, with one character saying they need to go so the other can get a few hours sleep before their seven o’clock train. Well, sunrise there at that time of the year is around 6:30 a.m. And the train this other person had to catch was not leaving from Atlantic City but from 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. And then there’s characters swimming in the ocean in September in water that is supposedly cold, when September is known as the “swell season” here with some of the warmest waters of the year (it’s 70 degrees as I write this). These characters also drive a lot between Philadelphia and the shore, also during a time of gas rations, when most people would have taken the train (which is where the whole “Down the Shore” thing comes from). There’s a throwaway line that Adelia’s uncle was a traveling salesman and got an exemption, but the Connallys do a lot of driving too.
If you don’t know, I wrote about the Jersey Shore for more than a decade, including two books. These might seem like small things, but they irked me, especially since they were details you could easily check! Oh well. She did get information about Atlantic City during the war right, and treatment of Italian Americans in the U.S. during that time (which my Italian grandfather, who was in the U.S. Navy and fought in the Pacific Campaign had a lot to say about even if he never really spoke about his experiences during the war itself). But these minor things seemed to have slipped through.
Since I’m into a tangent, I’ll keep going. I can’t find the post, but someone in an Italy-focused Subreddit asked if there was the same affinity between Italian Americans and Jewish people in Italy as in the U.S. Someone very calmly asked what the poster though happened to Jewish people in Italy during WW II. Adelia’s fictional parents were right to get her out (you can also read more about this in A House in the Mountains by Caroline Moorehead, which was book 19 this year).
That’s probably too much for a book I think was aggressively fine! But over the last year, I have been doing a lot of research about my family’s immigration from Italy to the U.S., and this also happened to dovetail with an area in which I know about.
Anyway, thank you to everyone who has been so kind to me during this terrible time. I have gotten so many messages of support. I’m still overwhelmed by grief, but these notes are helping me get through.
Nail polish: Malaga Wine by OPI.
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