Published by Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: June 10th 2014
Lillian Dunkle, the Ice Cream Queen of America, lives in a Park Avenue apartment and has a home in Bedford but began life as Malka Treynovsky in Vishnev, Russia. Susan Jane Gilman’s new novel, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, opens in 1913 when, at age six Malka came to America with her parents and her three sisters and ended up in an Orchard Street tenement. Shortly thereafter she is trampled by a horse and cart and her left leg is left permanently scarred and twisted but this is the first painful step of Malka’s journey to Lillian. When she is released from the hospital Malka learns her family is gone, her father having run off to greener pastures, one of her sisters dead from typhus, and her mother removed to a mental institution. She is taken in by the family of the man whose horse trampled her, Signor Dinello. They run an Italian ices cart and while she is not initially accepted as a member of the family she does learn the art and business of making ice cream and goes on to turn this knowledge into the largest ice cream manufacturer in America.
Lillian is not the usual heroine of fiction. She has a face that is sharp and thin and a manner much the same but, somehow through her wits and her chutzpah she captures the eye of one of the handsomest men in the neighborhood and he marries her, making her Mrs. Albert Dunkle. It is Albert’s gentle, unassuming manner and his mechanical know-how that leads to the creation of the first ever soft-serve ice cream machine and allows Lillian’s bravado and creativity to run unfettered turning their small roadside stands into a major corporation. If along the way, she makes some enemies and does not always behave with the purest of motives it only makes her that much more refreshing a female protagonist. She knows what she wants and as she’s been told she does not possess the feminine virtue of beauty so she will use what she has in abundance: her brains and street smarts.
Gilman follows Lillian for every year of her life from childhood to early marriage with no money and no prospects to her rise as the Ice Cream Queen, when she meets President Eisenhower and Mamie and has the first children’s television show—all in the name of ice cream. If in her later years there are some run-ins with the IRS and a tiny public relations incident involving one of the kiddies on her show, they are simply misunderstandings and can be blamed on her imbibing gin like water. Still, along the way she racks up enemies so quickly that when her power teeters
Suddenly everybody—everybody darlings—is tucking napkins into their collars, sharpening their knives, bellying up to the carving board.
The opportunity to indulge in over-the-top word play and metaphors when discussing The Ice Cream Queen is almost irresistible. The novel is as delicious and satisfying as a dish of ice cream on a summer afternoon and is populated with a cast in a multitude of flavors from all walks of life. Beneath the fancy toppings of wealth and a plot that never slows through seven decades Gilman has used the best ingredients, making this not only fun reading but a thorough and extraordinary adventure in the history of ice cream. She captures Lillian’s voice so completely that her Yiddish slang and political incorrectness can be heard while reading. The book weighs in at over 500 pages but with all the antics and drama in Lillian’s life it is a novel you won’t want to put down until you finish the last delectable page.
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