The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard StreetMalka is a young child when her Russian Jewish family flees the pogroms to begin a new life in America. Like most Eastern Europeans who came in the early 20th Century, they find themselves crammed into the tenements of New York and working for pennies. Unlike other families, Malka’s family does not succeed in climbing their way out of poverty. Malka finds herself orphaned and crippled at age eight. She is taken in by an Italian family who makes Italian Ices and Ice Cream. Despite all this, Malka is determined to succeed on her own, even when she suffers setback after setback.

Mr. Dinallo, who adopts Malka, is kind but tough. He feels responsible for her since it was his ice cream cart that hit Malka and caused her disability. He takes her in, changes her name to Lilian, and teaches her about the ice cream trade. Lilian even adopts the Catholic religion to fit in. Yet she is never really considered to be one of the family. She sleeps in the store instead of in their apartment, and has to do the menial labor that none of his real children want to do. After Mr. Dinallo dies, Lilian believes her life will remain intertwined with the family forever, but fate conspires against her once more.

Lilian does find happiness when she falls in love with Albert Dunkle, a poor but handsome man. They begin an ice cream business of their own, starting with just one machine and a truck. Their rise to fortune mirrors the struggles of the United States; barely getting by during the depression in the 1930’s, being separated as Albert goes off to war, and prosperity finally coming after World War Two ends. By the early 1960’s, Malka Treynovsky has transformed into Lilian Dunkle the Ice Cream Queen, the fabulously rich and popular host of a children’s television show. Privately, though, she is still the caustic, tough girl from the tenements.

I loved the feisty voice of the narrator, and the fact that she was not perfect. She had a lot of bad things happen to her, but she fought back with vengeance, not sweet acceptance. This was a pleasant change from novels with a long suffering hero or heroine who triumphs by being perfect and righteous.

The Ice Cream Queen is Gilman’s first novel, but if you enjoy her wonderful sense of humor, try her memoir Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress.

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