Kate Simon

Bronx Primitive

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Bronx Primitive Summary

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Bronx Primitive is a 1982 memoir by Kate Simon (whose original name was Kaila Grobsmith). The book details Simon’s childhood, growing up as a working-class immigrant Jewish girl in the Bronx of the early twentieth century. Her home, at the corner of 178th Street and Lafontaine Avenue, becomes the hub of colorful array of friends, family members, and certain less savory characters who powerfully impact the author’s life. Bronx Primitive forms the first of an autobiographical trilogy that includes A Wider World: Portraits in an Adolescence (1986) and Etchings in an Hourglass (1990). Simon has received wide acclaim for her elegant, but unsentimental, unsparing prose. In the year of its initial publication, the New York Times listed Bronx Primitive as one of the dozen best books of the year, and Times Magazine one of its top five. It was also nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Bronx Primitive covers Simon’s life from her arrival in New York City from Poland’s Warsaw Ghetto at four years old, to the cusp of her adolescence at 14. It is organized into fourteen chapters that interlink with one another, but do not mark a fully chronological progression; that is, the book does not center upon a specific plot, so much as discrete but interconnected snapshots of various aspects of Simon’s childhood. Particularly, Simon is interested in realizing on the page the friends and family members that made the largest impression upon her as a child. She describes them as she would have understood them at the time – for instance, she only refers to her parents by name in the chapter that deals with their pre-American lives. The rest of the time she merely refers to them as “Mother” and “Father.”

Simon’s father was a shoemaker, and without making it explicit, she makes it clear that the family was poor, and held dear to the few luxuries it could afford, given just how much time and labor went into paying for them. He had gone ahead of the rest of the family to America, with Kate’s mother, herself, and her younger brother following after. The relationship between Simon’s mother and father is given to be a fraught and often unhappy one – although she does mention coming home unexpectedly one day to find her mother playfully splashing her father from a bowl of water where she was soaking her feet, as he carefully cut her toenails. Such scenes of tenderness between her parents carry exceptional impact for their rarity, and for how they contrast with Simon’s matter-of-fact description of their more usual conflicts.

Simon’s own relationship with her father was also a difficult one, and she recalls coming to associate the bathroom in the family’s small apartment with two things mainly: the carp that swam there Wednesdays and Thursdays, before being prepared by her mother for Friday dinner; and the stern lectures and spankings meted out liberally by her father when he was angry. On another occasion, her father gets mad at Simon, who was a notably good student, for not getting into a “rapid advance” junior high school, which could be finished in two, rather than three years. Her father accuses her of intentionally failing to get into the junior high school out of spite. Later, he disagrees with her decision to attend high school at all, wishing she’d drop out and become a concert pianist instead.

But through it all, young Kaila Simon – who quickly becomes Caroline in America, and then Kate – steers her own course: from her fraternization with the elder Italian girls in her neighborhood, who share with her, in whispers, their largely incorrect knowledge about sex; to her days on Coney Island, palling around with gypsies; to, again, her run-in with an elderly neighborhood musician, the friend of a friend, who uses cake to lure little girls into his apartment, and then shows them pornography – an upsetting scenario that Kate quickly removes herself from, but refuses to notify any adults about. Simon’s ability to evoke the strange logic of childhood, in all its glories and dangers, makes her autobiography of a bygone era especially poignant – and in its universalities, relatable, despite just how bygone the early twentieth century now is.

The New York Times’ original 1982 review of Bronx Primitive remains as relevant today as the year it was written: “Young Jewish women, too, battered their way into the English language; like the males, they turned their backs on Brooklyn and crossed the Bridge to wrest success from Manhattan… Nevertheless, with some notable exceptions, our idea of the immigrant experience has been overwhelmingly shaped by men, to the distortion of actuality.” As a record of female experience during an era that rarely felt such things were worth recording, Kate Simon’s autobiography stands as a vital entry to America’s cannon of early 20th-century nonfiction.