In The Promised Land
, Mary Antin tells of moving from Polotzk, Russia, to Boston, Massachusetts, when she was around thirteen years old. As a child, she lived in the Russian Pale, the part of Russia where Jews were forced to live by law. As a Jew in the Pale, she was a decidedly second-class citizen with few opportunities for education and little freedom. She also was helpless to defend herself against the abuse of her Christian neighbors. As a female Jew, her opportunities were even more limited, as she could not get the religious education that male Jews received.
In Boston, however, Antin found herself with immense freedom and limitless opportunities for education, provided mainly through the public school system but also through the Boston Public Library, the settlement houses (especially Hale House), and the streets. Barred from secular schools in Russia, she was welcomed into the public schools in Boston and provided with the same opportunities to learn as any other child. The book recounts how she took advantage of those opportunities. Cen- tral to The Promised Land
is this contrast between Antin’s life in Europe and the United States. In fact, she wonders whether the child of the Russian Pale and the American adolescent can be the same person and speaks of her coming to the United States as a second birth.
Antin carries this contrast through the twenty chapters of The Promised Land
, ending with a glimpse into her possible future in the New World and with a summary of the ways in which her life has changed. The change seems truly miraculous to her, for she has moved from a life of fear, ignorance, and poverty in Russia to a life in which she has what she calls (in one of her chapter titles) "A Kingdom in the Slums." At the end of the book, the poverty still remains, but the fear and ignorance give way to security and knowledge, part of which is her understanding that, in the United States, all things are possible and she need not live in poverty long.
The turning point in Antin’s narrative occurs in chapters 8 and 9, "The Exodus" and "The Promised Land," when Antin, her mother, sisters, and brother followed her father to Boston. The remaining eleven chapters narrate the ease with which she became thoroughly Americanized and assimilated into American society. In terms of structure, the title "The Exodus" gives a powerful clue: Like most European-American immigrant autobiographies, the book is generally structured on the biblical book of Exodus. Antin shows herself traveling from the land of bondage, Russia, to what she calls without irony "The Promised Land," the title of the book as well as of the chapter in which she describes her entrance into the New World.