The Treynovsky family escaped the pogroms in Russia and emmigrated to the lower east side of New York, where Malka grew up to become Lillian Dunkle, the eponymous ice cream queen in Susan Jane Gilman’s charming first novel. Her journey from poverty stricken immigrant to enormously successful ice cream magnate is the quintessential American story.
The streets of New York are not always the safest place for children, teeming with vendors and their push carts. Malka is out one day when the Italian ices man’s horse accidentally crushes her leg in a truly Dickensian moment. Malka’s father takes off, her mother can’t handle it and ends up in a sanitarium. Mr. Dinello feels guilty for crippling the child and takes her in, so this Jewish immigrant girl is raised by an Italian immigrant family. The Italian ices cart grows into an ice cream factory and Malka learns the business until both Mr. and Mrs. Dinello pass away. Their sons form a partnership and a new company, and leave her out in the cold.
Revenge drives Malka, who eventually changes her name to the more American sounding Lillian. She meets Albert Dunkle, a movie star handsome Jewish immigrant with a bad stutter. She tries to help him and they fall in love and marry. Together they start up Dunkle’s Ice Cream. Albert invents a machine that makes soft serve ice cream (think Carvel here, I certainly did) and they become hugely successful. But vindictiveness against the Dinello family fuels Lillian’s fire, and she won’t be happy until they are out of business. Lillian is an unscrupulous businesswoman, and eventually her chickens come home to roost.
This is a family story about the immigrant experience in America, told with a lot of humor and pathos. The characters come alive on these pages and while you may not always like Lillian Dunkle, you can’t help but cheer her on.
7/14 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch
THE ICE CREAM QUEEN OF ORCHARD STREET by Susan Jane Gilman. Grand Central Publishing (June 10, 2014). ISBN 978-0446578936. 512p.