BOBE MAYSE: A Tale of Washington Square by Nancy Bogen (Twickenham Press: $22; 321 pp.) Just in time for the season, a regular Hedda Gobbler. This particular emancipee, a young lady called Martha Ferber, has chosen slave labor as her personal statement. Specifically, Martha--16, middle-class and Seven Sisters material--has taken a job doing piecework in one of those turn-of-the-century Manhattan sweatshops notorious for overwork, underpay and hazardous conditions. So why does Martha prefer Triangle Shirtwaist to Smith College? Nobody ever says, but not to worry; the place burns down, taking 145 seamstresses with it, Martha among them, and not a moment too soon.
That's it. That's the story. It's all spelled out on Page 6. To pad it out, a few other characters clot the story's arteries, notably Hippolyte Havel, introduced thus: "Hippolyte was a one-of-a-kind without whom Fanny's tale would in no form or fashion be complete." ("Bobe Mayse"--old wives' tale in Yiddish--is narrated by Fanny, an old wife.) Curiously, Hippolyte never meets Fanny, nor Martha either, and has no bearing whatever on the story. What he does do, apropos of nothing at all, is allow himself to be seduced by legendary Laborite Red Emma Goldman, who proceeds to exclaim: "De flesh iss de flesh, und ven it calls it must be answert." They talk like that, Nancy Bogen's people (Martha's mom: "You say you vant to voik mit your hands?"). So, in her own way does Bogen: "An easier existence it didn't prove to be." Oi!