On Bit­ter­sweet Place

By – May 22, 2014

In the ear­ly 1920s, the Czer­nit­s­ki fam­i­ly escapes anti-Semi­tism in Rus­sia by im­migrating to Chica­go. By the age of ten, Lena Czer­nit­s­ki has expe­ri­enced many hard­ships, includ­ing the mur­der of her grand­fa­ther and the uncer­tain­ties of liv­ing in a new coun­try. Lena begins to record a list of her fears, which she returns to and reflects on through­out the nov­el, which include nev­er speak­ing Eng­lish well enough, nev­er hav­ing a home that is safe, and no one help­ing her in school. She feels that she will always stand out from the oth­er chil­dren and there­fore envies her young cousin Leah Grace, who was born in Chica­go and doesn’t have to strug­gle with otherness.

Lena’s fears are real­ized through unfor­tu­nate events that occur in her fam­i­ly through­out the book, includ­ing death, abuse, affairs, men­tal ill­ness, and sib­ling rival­ry, but she is also able to cross out some of her fears as she matures. She tries to fig­ure out her place with­in her fam­i­ly. She dis­cov­ers a tal­ent for draw­ing that gets her into trou­ble at school when her teacher refus­es to believe that Lena could cre­ate some­thing beau­ti­ful. Then Lena meets a boy named Max who is as equal­ly inter­est­ed in cre­at­ing beau­ty through music as she is through art. Lena expe­ri­ences com­pan­ion­ship and first love as they try to under­stand the world around them, con­fid­ing in each oth­er about their deep­est thoughts and fam­i­ly secrets.

Along­side Lena’s com­ing-of-age sto­ry of Lena, oth­er con­cerns devel­op with­in her fam­i­ly and become impor­tant to the story’s plot, in­cluding nego­ti­at­ing Jew­ish cus­toms and fam­i­ly with­in this new Amer­i­can cul­ture, and difficul­ties assim­i­lat­ing that cause some mem­bers of Lena’s fam­i­ly to real­ize that Amer­i­ca is not exact­ly the Gold­ene Med­i­na they had hoped it would be.

Ron­na Wineberg has brought this peri­od of Amer­i­can his­to­ry in Chica­go to life. Lena’s sto­ry not only pro­vides a glimpse into the life of a Jew­ish immi­grant and her fam­i­ly in the 20s but lets read­ers rejoice in the beau­ty of Lena’s growth and her abil­i­ty to see good in a world that has not always appre­ci­at­ed her.

Jamie Wendt is the author of the poet­ry col­lec­tion Fruit of the Earth, pub­lished by Main Street Rag Pub­lish­ing Com­pa­ny (2018) and win­ner of the 2019 Nation­al Fed­er­a­tion of Press Women Book Award. Her poet­ry has been pub­lished in var­i­ous lit­er­ary jour­nals and antholo­gies, includ­ing Fem­i­nine Ris­ing: Voic­es of Pow­er and Invis­i­bil­i­tyLilith, Raleigh ReviewMin­er­va Ris­ing, Third Wednes­day, and Saranac Review. Her essays and book reviews have been pub­lished in Green Moun­tains Review, the For­ward, Lit­er­ary Mama, and oth­ers. She holds an MFA from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Oma­ha. She teach­es high school Eng­lish and lives in Chica­go with her hus­band and two children.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Ron­na Wineberg

  • What mean­ing does belong­ing in this new coun­try,” Amer­i­ca, have for Lena? For her fam­i­ly? What mean­ing does Belilov­ka have for Lena and her family?

  • Dif­fer­ent types of prej­u­dice are woven through On Bit­ter­sweet Place. Which char­ac­ters feel intol­er­ance for oth­ers or judge oth­er peo­ple? Do Chaim and Reesa view prej­u­dice in the same way?

  • What role do deci­sions play in the nov­el? What do you think of Abie’s and Ida’s deci­sion? What do you imag­ine the future holds for them? What do you think of Lena’s choice about Max?

  • Dis­cuss the par­ent and child rela­tion­ships in the book. Reesa says, A moth­er knows her child.” How much do par­ents and chil­dren real­ly know about each other’s lives?

  • Reesa tells Lena, Every­one in their life is search­ing for luck.” How does luck fac­tor in the nov­el? In life?

  • On Bit­ter­sweet Place explores dis­place­ment and sur­vival. What are the oth­er themes in the book? What role do love and loss play in the sto­ry? What are Lena’s views about love? How do oth­er char­ac­ters view love?

  • What does the nov­el say about fam­i­ly loy­al­ty and respon­si­bil­i­ties? What hap­pens to the Czer­nit­s­ki family’s close bonds by the end of the book?

  • Lena and Simon have secrets. Oth­er char­ac­ters do, too. Lena thinks, But some­times secrets are essen­tial and can’t be helped.” Is she right? How do secrets func­tion in the nov­el? In life?

  • How does Lena resolve her fears and chal­lenges? Which char­ac­ters help?

  • What do art and draw­ing mean to Lena? How do Lena’s draw­ings save” her?

  • What has Lena learned about her­self and about life at the end of the novel?