The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman is a very enjoyable and insightful book. Spanning over seventy years, from the early 1900s to the late 1980s this novel encompasses many side stories. Yet the author does this by intertwining the rise of a woman ice cream mogul with an immigrant’s story, the twentieth century American Jewish desire to assimilate, women’s rights issues, poverty, world wars, McCarthyism, the youth movement of the sixties, Reagan’s trickle-down economics, and the overreach of government.
Gilman thinks it is very important to show how women struggled through the decades. “I wanted to expand on the way women are portrayed in our culture. That is why I put the scene in where a male businessman tells Lillian, ‘I don’t do business with women.’ I don’t see a lot of women anti-heroes in literature. If you noticed, this is a story of “Beauty and The Beast” in reverse, since she has a gorgeous husband. She became the brains and he the brawns. I also included the age issue for women: our American culture punishes women for not staying young.”
The plot is a page-turner and very informative from the beginning. Trying to escape the Pogroms young Malka’s parents immigrate to New York City. After being crippled by an ice cream cart she is abandoned by her own family, but manages to survive after being taken in by the family who caused the accident. She survives through her wit and cunningness, and learns the secrets of the trade from her rescuers, an Italian family. After falling in love and eventually marrying a handsome, dyslexic Jewish man, Albert, she transforms herself from a crippled dependent girl to Lillian Dunkle, the ice cream queen tycoon.
Susan Jane Gilman commented on her research for the book, “I called the Carvel Corporation who put me in touch with one of the oldest stores over in Long Island. The owner, Mr. Gizagidze, told me all the ins and outs of the ice cream business. I met all the people who worked there and even worked behind the counter, although they did keep me away from the ice cream. I think they knew I had an ulterior motive: I could have opened my mouth under the skippet and poured ice cream down it. I also went to Gelato University in Bellona. I took a Gelato ice cream making class there. I learned from making it that the sweetness of ice cream is the product of science, mathematics, and chemistry.”
Readers are able to also get a glimpse of the historical issues, many times with humor and wit. During the scenes when Malka stays with the Italian family the author skillfully shows the similarities and differences between the Jewish and Italian immigrants. Other scenes show that even during earlier decades government bureaucracy was at its worst. Through Lillian’s eyes the author points out, “Oh the rigmorale she had to go through. Tax returns and even a psychological evaluation. What will they ask for next? A blood sample? Today, if one of our franchises wants to hire a sixteen-year-old to scoop ice cream for a summer, the management is required to provide more information than my entire family was asked to supply at Ellis Island.”
Lillian is a complex character with two sides. At times readers will root for and really like her while at other times she will be seen as despicable and amoral. She can be driven, bitter, and rude while also being bold, loyal, and highly intelligent. This two-sided personality allows for the reader to see that someone, especially a businesswoman, has to develop a thick side but can also be seen as a motherly figure. She was both compelling and sympathetic.
The author noted she created “Lillian as a modern female anti-hero who is a combination of Scarlett O’ Hara and Leona Helmsley. She is a businesswoman who sells ice cream to the public in the guise of a motherly figure. But she also is mean-spirited, difficult, and manipulative. She has a lot of chutzpah. I would not want to work for her or be around her. Yet, I did love her and her personality. She is very animated, curious, and whip smart. She is fiercely protective of what she created and the people she loves. I wanted to create a character that is in certain ways very unlikable and in other ways is very loveable. I think that most humans have two sides. I hope readers find her complicated, exasperating, interesting, and funny. She had everything go against her early on, she is orphaned, disabled, Jewish, poor, an immigrant, a female, yet she is able to overcome all these obstacles to become very successful.”
Incredibly Gilman is able to weave together American history, the Jewish experience, and ice cream. Throughout the book there are Yiddish terms used by the characters to convey their emotions. With New York City looming in the background, the reader will learn everything about the ice cream business and how it was affected by important issues of the day, including the threat of new franchises like McDonald’s that incorporated ice cream in their menu choices.
Anyone that wants a captivating story with a lot of humor, sensitivity, and Jewish wit should read The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street. Readers will be taken on a journey through the decades with Lillian Dunkle, the celebrated matriarch of the ice cream business, as she recounts her life from penniless immigrant to food tycoon.
Susan Jane Gilman
Grand Central Publishing, 2014