Letters from Rifka, Karen Hess

Synopsis: Russia, 1919.  Written in a book of Pushkin poetry, to cousin Tovah.
Twelve-year old Rifka’s family is on the run because her brother deserted the army. You don’t desert the army, ESPECIALLY if you’re Jewish. She has brothers in America, so they are going to escape to go to them.  Rifka, who is blonde and has a strong grasp of language (i.e. can speak Russian without a Yiddish accent) she gets to distract the guards while her family hides on a train. She succeeds. They make it to Poland, but are humiliated at the train station by getting inspected by doctors and getting their clothes fumigated. Rifka contracts typhus (she thinks from the Polish doctor), and most of her family does as well.

Once their health improves, they go to Belgium. Rifka plays with a girl’s hair on the train and contracts ringworm… so, she can’t go to America, but the rest of her family must leave. HIAS (Hebrew Immigration Aid Society) help Rifka while she’s “on her own”.  She gets to eat bananas and Belgium chocolate, so she’s pretty pleased with the diet she’s created.  A Catholic nun is helping cure her ringworm, and she appreciates the affection that she feels from the Sister.

The ringworm’s finally cured, and Rifka can go to America! She meets a cute sailor Pieter on the boat who tells her she’s clever and even gives her a little kiss.  The ship hits a hurricane and there’s a storm that lasts 2 days, and they lost one sailor– yep, Pieter. Rifka’s pretty sad about losing him– we’ll go ahead and call him her first love– but Ellis Isle is in sight.

Rifka arrives in America, and is detained. The officials are concerned that her hair hasn’t started growing back from the ringworm. They worry this will make her  undesirable for marriage and thus a state burden. She gets to hang out on the island until her hair grows. Booo…. anyway, she meets Ilya, a seven-year old Russian, and she takes him under her wing. He reads her Pushkin poems, but refuses to talk to people other than Rifka. This is why he’s being detained– they think he’s deaf and dumb or something. Rifka also takes care of a baby with typhus.  When it comes to time for the officials to decide whether they stay or leave America, Rifka helps Ilya by telling him to read Pushkin to the officials and his uncle (who sent for him in the first place, but Ilya was afraid the uncle didn’t want him). Rifka hasn’t looked at her head lately so she’s unsure what the itching on her head is about and is afraid it’s still ringworm. When the officials say take off the scarf, she gives a long speech about how bald or not, she should be in America. They agree and let her go to her family, but it turns out she’s itchy because her hair’s growing (which they find out after).

Bookworm’s Commentary: For starters, the synopsis above was done without my book in front of me. Forgive me for any mistakes I made, but that’s the gist of the book.
This is a really sweet book based on Hess’s Aunt Lucy’s immigration experience. It won the National Jewish Book Award.

I read this with some members of my children’s lit class in a lit circle. It was really neat, we all liked it. One thing we found impressive was Rifka essentially learned a new language everywhere: she spoke Yiddish, Russian (w/o Yiddish accent), Polish, Flemish, and English. She’s 12, turns 13 in the book.  Um, wow. She always puts herself down because she thinks she’s just pretty. (That was part of the distraction with the guard– he kept playing with her hair and talking about how she should stay with him, he’d find her work– gross!) But, knowing at least 5 languages counts as clever. Also, she knew how to take care of the two kids and talk her way into America. She gets major props from me.

As I said before,  she writes these letters in  a book of poetry by the Russian poet Pushkin. He really plays a character in the book. His poems accompany each section, and it’s a beautiful touch.

Class Stuff:
Grades: 4-6 My lit teacher used this in her fourth grade class, but it would work for fifth and sixth.
Grade:  A
It’s beautifully written, it’s a nice history lesson,  she had some great goosebump lines. (Example: the sky after the storm was “yellow and ugly like a bruise.”) Gorgeous stuff.  It’s one that will spark some curious research because there’s so much stuff! Immigration, Russia (probably the Communist Revolution– side note, I did check, the time frame is not the same as Fiddler on the Roof, but same persecution, etc.), Hebrew religion, Ellis Isle, for that matter– even family history, when did you arrive in America?, etc.  It would work fantastically in a classroom, but I enjoyed it very much.

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Filed under Children's Literature Class, Middle school (6-8), Realistic, Upper elementary

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