On Bittersweet Place

Relegation Books  2014


In the early 1920s, the Czernitski family escapes anti-Semitism in Russia by im­migrating to Chicago. By the age of ten, Lena Czernitski has experienced many hardships, including the murder of her grandfather and the uncertainties of living in a new country. Lena begins to record a list of her fears, which she returns to and reflects on throughout the novel, which include never speaking English well enough, never having a home that is safe, and no one helping her in school. She feels that she will always stand out from the other children and therefore envies her young cousin Leah Grace, who was born in Chicago and doesn’t have to struggle with otherness.

Lena’s fears are realized through unfortunate events that occur in her family throughout the book, including death, abuse, affairs, mental illness, and sibling rivalry, but she is also able to cross out some of her fears as she matures. She tries to figure out her place within her family. She discovers a talent for drawing that gets her into trouble at school when her teacher refuses to believe that Lena could create something beautiful. Then Lena meets a boy named Max who is as equally interested in creating beauty through music as she is through art. Lena experiences companionship and first love as they try to understand the world around them, confiding in each other about their deepest thoughts and family secrets.

Alongside Lena’s coming-of-age story of Lena, other concerns develop within her family and become important to the story’s plot, in­cluding negotiating Jewish customs and family within this new American culture, and difficul­ties assimilating that cause some members of Lena’s family to realize that America is not exactly the Goldene Medina they had hoped it would be.

Ronna Wineberg has brought this period of American history in Chicago to life. Lena’s story not only provides a glimpse into the life of a Jewish immigrant and her family in the ‘20s but lets readers rejoice in the beauty of Lena’s growth and her ability to see good in a world that has not always appreciated her.

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Discussion Questions

Courtesy of Ronna Wineberg

  1. What meaning does belonging in “this new country,” America, have for Lena? For her family? What meaning does Belilovka have for Lena and her family?

  2. Different types of prejudice are woven through On Bittersweet Place. Which characters feel intolerance for others or judge other people? Do Chaim and Reesa view prejudice in the same way?

  3. What role do decisions play in the novel? What do you think of Abie’s and Ida’s decision? What do you imagine the future holds for them? What do you think of Lena’s choice about Max?

  4. Discuss the parent and child relationships in the book. Reesa says, “A mother knows her child.” How much do parents and children really know about each other’s lives?

  5. Reesa tells Lena, “Everyone in their life is searching for luck.” How does luck factor in the novel? In life?

  6. On Bittersweet Place explores displacement and survival. What are the other themes in the book? What role do love and loss play in the story? What are Lena’s views about love? How do other characters view love?

  7. What does the novel say about family loyalty and responsibilities? What happens to the Czernitski family’s close bonds by the end of the book?

  8. Lena and Simon have secrets. Other characters do, too. Lena thinks, “But sometimes secrets are essential and can’t be helped.” Is she right? How do secrets function in the novel? In life?

  9. How does Lena resolve her fears and challenges? Which characters help?

  10. What do art and drawing mean to Lena? How do Lena’s drawings “save” her?

  11. What has Lena learned about herself and about life at the end of the novel?

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