Bro­ken Strings

Eric Wal­ters and Kathy Kacer

  • Review
By – July 4, 2019

It has been both well doc­u­ment­ed and per­son­al­ly expe­ri­enced that some sur­vivors of the Shoah remained reluc­tant to talk about their suf­fer­ing. Some­times this choice extend­ed through­out their lives. In Bro­ken Strings, Eric Wal­ters and Kathy Kac­er fol­low the rela­tion­ship between junior high school stu­dent Shirli Berman and her Zayde, through the lens of Shirli’s dis­ap­point­ments and inse­cu­ri­ties, and her aged grandfather’s need to allow her to share the ter­ri­ble truths of his past. The nov­el takes place in the after­math of Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001, when the sense of safe­ty of Shirli’s New Jer­sey com­mu­ni­ty has been shat­tered, and every­day rou­tines have tak­en on a frag­ile dimen­sion. By the end of the book, mid­dle grade read­ers will have learned a great deal about the inhu­man­i­ty of Nazism, as well as about the scars left on their vic­tims. They will also come away with a sense of the dam­ag­ing effects of silence, and the hope that, at least some­times, bur­dens can be shared.

Shirli is a musi­cal the­ater fanat­ic, and the book is full of ref­er­ences to songs, pro­duc­tion terms, and Fid­dler on the Roof lore. Deter­mined to win the role of Hodel in her school’s play because of the oppor­tu­ni­ty it offers to show­case her voice, Shirli is heart­bro­ken to instead be offered the role of Golde. For all its dra­mat­ic rich­ness, play­ing the part of the Jew­ish matri­arch is a source of bit­ter frus­tra­tion: I’m play­ing everybody’s moth­er. I’m play­ing an old Jew­ish woman who has no solo.” Shirli is both con­vinc­ing and thor­ough­ly like­able. She is not self-absorbed or insen­si­tive, just an ambi­tious and sen­si­tive young adult whose life so far has been mov­ing towards a goal, one which now seems elusive.

In search­ing for props in her grandfather’s attic, she uncov­ers objects from his past which even­tu­al­ly lead to a painful jour­ney for him, as well as a close­ness with his fam­i­ly which his keep­ing secrets had prevented.

Zayde is a com­plex per­son, not a sym­bol of the Holo­caust. The authors build his char­ac­ter through details; he is an avid fol­low­er of wrestling on tele­vi­sion, at the same time that he con­tin­ues to dress for­mal­ly in the but­ton-down shirts and dress pants of his for­mer career as an accoun­tant. Shirli shops for him, bring­ing him the req­ui­site num­ber of bananas and the dark rye bread which he prefers. At times, the authors seem to demand a lot of him, as he is trans­formed from a lone­ly old man to an out­go­ing friend of Shirli’s class­mates. In par­tic­u­lar, his ready accep­tance of his granddaughter’s crush on a non-Jew­ish boy may seem sur­pris­ing. Yet the loss­es he has suf­fered, includ­ing the recent one of his wife, make his flex­i­bil­i­ty more plau­si­ble. Read­ers will accept that his rigid self-con­trol must have masked many parts of his nature as well as his past.

Music is a deep bond between Shirli and Zayde and it pro­vides a link across gen­er­a­tions. From the silent vio­lin stored in Zayde’s attic, to Zayde’s expla­na­tion of tra­di­tion­al East­ern Euro­pean klezmer musi­cians who made their instru­ments speak with a human voice, the role of music in Jew­ish cul­ture is an essen­tial part of the sto­ry. Read­ers with a long and sen­ti­men­tal attach­ment to Fid­dler, whose Jew­ish lin­eage Shirli enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly details to Zayde, will appre­ci­ate it with renewed pride.

The larg­er community’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the school’s pro­duc­tion helps to unite them, as they con­tem­plate the destruc­tive nature of prej­u­dice after the recent ter­ror­ist attack. If Zayde’s friend­ship with a Hin­du store own­er, and his vocal sup­port of the Mus­lim stu­dent play­ing the role of Per­chik (“Do you know what I feel about a Mus­lim play­ing a Jew?…I feel so hap­py.”), seem a bit didac­tic, that may be because the authors have used their nov­el to res­cue a ter­ri­ble past, and to teach read­ers about a dif­fer­ent kind of future.

Bro­ken Strings includes an infor­ma­tive Authors’ Note” which helps put the book in his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive for readers.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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