Anita Diamant finds inspiration for her best-selling novels in a variety of sources. Sitting down to write her first novel, The Red Tent (St. Martin’s, 1997), she wondered what happened to Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah in the Bible. Before The Last Days of Dogtown (Scribner, 2005), she came upon a pamphlet in a Gloucester bookstore about the settlement named Dogtown and pondered why it had become a ghost town and who the last residents were.
Her most recent novel, The Boston Girl (Simon & Schuster, 2014), started in Rockport, Massachusetts, where Diamant, a resident of Newton, Massachusetts, has vacationed since the early 1990s. One morning she drove past the Rockport Lodge and spotted a friend from Boston walking out the door. Her friend was working as the lodge’s cook that summer and told the novelist about the place—that it was “women only” and incredibly inexpensive. Diamant was intrigued by the vacation resort for low-income women, which had opened in 1906.
During the 1990s, Diamant watched the lodge deteriorate. After it closed, in 2002, she learned that the Schlesinger Library owned its records. The committee that oversaw its final days and sold the lodge had donated its records to the library. Today the lodge is a private home, the only trace of its fascinating past a faded sign over the door.
When Diamant contacted the library, she learned that the records hadn’t been processed and therefore weren’t accessible to researchers. But the Schlesinger librarians also told her that they would go through those records before others on the processing list so that she could do her research. “That was amazing,” Diamant says. “There was a long queue, and they put the Rockport materials at the top.” She expressed her gratitude to the library and three Schlesinger staff members—Susan Earle, Sarah Hutcheon, and Kathryn Allamong Jacob—in the acknowledgments of The Boston Girl.
The 47 boxes of Rockport Lodge records contain all sorts of organizational materials—including articles of incorporation and board meeting notes—along with scrapbooks and photographs. “A lot of it, such as the kitchen correspondence, I skipped through,” says Diamant. “I focused on the scrapbooks and photographs. Those were the richest parts for me.”
She also conducted research at libraries in Gloucester and Rockport and interviewed a woman whose grandmother had gone to the lodge as a girl and had been a member of the Saturday Evening Girls’ Club in Boston’s North End, which figures in the novel.
“I had never been so smitten by my research,” Diamant wrote in The Women’s Review of Books. After a year of reading, she had barely gotten to the mid-1920s. But she had begun to assemble a cast of characters who “came from various backgrounds—Jewish, Italian, and Irish—reflecting the ethnic diversity (unusual for the times) of the Saturday Evening Girls’ Club and Rockport Lodge.”
One of the memorable characters is a potter, Filomena, who is a close friend of the main character, Addie Baum, before she falls in love with a dashing artist and moves to New Mexico with him. The women’s friendship remains important to both of them throughout their lives, even though they rarely get to see one another. Diamant says the potter is a composite of a couple of girls she read about who painted pottery at the Saturday Evening Girls’ Club, which was based at the North Bennet Street School. The novelist makes clear that Filomena’s parents were dead and she had no brothers, because, Diamant says, “for her to be gallivanting around like that—for an Italian girl in particular—was really transgressive.”
Women breaking out of bounds is one of the charms of The Boston Girl. Addie and her pals are coming of age during the early part of the 20th century, a time when women were entering the workforce, going to college, and finding their voices. Addie and her friends face more obstacles at work and home than women do today, but the challenges are similar: finding work and love, remaining true to friends and family while forging your own path.
Although four of the five novels she has written are historical, Diamant says she doesn’t consider herself a historical novelist. “I find the story first," she says, “and that’s what calls to me. It’s not that I seek out a period piece about a particular time.”
The Schlesinger Library helped Diamant tell that story, and her publisher, in its online resources for book clubs, encourages readers to explore the library’s materials. Perhaps other novelists will find inspiration in its collections about women’s history.