Rachel’s Secret

  • Review
By – April 27, 2012
When a boy is bru­tal­ly mur­dered in Kishinev, Rus­sia in 1903, the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty is blamed and vicious anti-Jew­ish pro­pa­gan­da quick­ly spreads. Rachel Paskar, a Jew­ish girl, was the last per­son to see Mikhail alive but will any­one believe her if she reveals the true iden­ti­ty of the mur­der­er? Will her fam­i­ly and her com­mu­ni­ty be put in more dan­ger if she comes for­ward? Will the police even do any­thing? The dra­ma and sus­pense builds and grows with inten­si­ty until vio­lence erupts and Rachel’s father is killed, along with fifty oth­ers, in a dev­as­tat­ing pogrom. The nov­el los­es some momen­tum after the pogrom when Rachel, her sis­ter, and her moth­er stay at the Jew­ish hos­pi­tal, along with the oth­er home­less, dis­placed Jews. But read­ers will be touched by Rachel’s grow­ing friend­ship with Sergei, one of Mikhail’s friends and the son of a police offi­cer, and will be filled with hope as Rachel and her fam­i­ly embark on their jour­ney to Amer­i­ca. Told from Rachel’s per­spec­tive as well as that of Sergei, first time nov­el­ist Sanders seam­less­ly weaves his­tor­i­cal facts and char­ac­ters from the 1903 Kishinev Pogrom into this high­ly read­able, fic­tion­al­ized account, inspired by her grand­moth­er. Rachel’s rela­tion­ship with the two Chris­t­ian boys and her strug­gle with her faith in God and reli­gion are por­trayed with warmth and sen­si­tiv­i­ty, pro­vid­ing an authen­tic, com­pelling por­trait of what life might have been like for a young Jew­ish girl at that time. An excel­lent dis­cus­sion starter for explor­ing the his­to­ry of anti-Semi­tism, Rachel’s Secret is rec­om­mend­ed for read­ers ages 10 and up and will appeal to fans of sim­i­lar nov­els such as Pup­pet by Eva Wise­man and The Night of the Burn­ing by Lin­da Press Wulf.

Dis­cus­sion Questions

Cour­tesy of Shelly Sanders

  1. In Rachel’s Secret, read­ers are ush­ered into Impe­r­i­al Rus­sia, the time of the last Tsar. This was a chaot­ic time, ram­pant with anti-Semi­tism, hor­ri­ble work­ing con­di­tions, and a bru­tal author­i­tar­i­an regime. Does the novel’s his­tor­i­cal fic­tion genre make this set­ting more vivid? If so, how and why? Do you like his­tor­i­cal fic­tion? Why or why not?

  2. At the begin­ning of the nov­el, Rachel thinks back to her favorite book, A Dou­ble Life, by Karoli­na Pavlo­va, specif­i­cal­ly the fol­low­ing pas­sage: Hold back your pas­sion, sti­fle its sounds, Teach your tears not to flow. You are a woman! Live with­out defens­es, With­out caprice, with­out will, with­out hope.” Why does Rachel focus on these par­tic­u­lar words? What do they say about a woman’s place in Rus­sia at this time?

  3. Sev­er­al threads of the plot res­onate in today’s world — women’s rights, pro­pa­gan­da, intol­er­ance, cen­sor­ship. Dis­cuss how these ele­ments are promi­nent in your world.

  4. Do you like the author’s use of two dis­tinct pro­tag­o­nists with their con­trary points-of-view? 

  5. What does the fol­low­ing state­ment mean to you with­in the con­text of the sto­ry: The Kishinev pogrom was a direct con­se­quence of the pro­pa­gan­da of lies and vio­lence that the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment pur­sues with such ener­gy. –Leo Tol­stoy, Bul­letin annuel de l’AIU65, 1903

  6. Both Rachel and Sergei’s rela­tion­ships with their fathers have pro­found influ­ences on their deci­sions. Dis­cuss. Who has influ­enced major deci­sions in your life?

  7. Who changes more as the sto­ry unfolds, Rachel or Sergei? 

  8. Dis­cuss the rela­tion­ship between Rachel and Sergei. How does it change through­out the novel?

Rachel Kamin has been a syn­a­gogue librar­i­an and Jew­ish edu­ca­tor for over twen­ty-five years and has worked at North Sub­ur­ban Syn­a­gogue Beth El in High­land Park, IL since 2008, cur­rent­ly serv­ing as the Direc­tor of Life­long Learn­ing. A past chair of the Syd­ney Tay­lor Book Award Com­mit­tee and past edi­tor of Book Reviews for Chil­dren & Teens for the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Libraries News & Reviews, her arti­cles and book reviews appear in numer­ous pub­li­ca­tions. She has been a mem­ber of the Amer­i­can Library Association’s Sophie Brody Book Award Com­mit­tee since 2021.

Discussion Questions