Miri­am Ruth Black

January 3, 2022

1919 Ukraine — In a small trunk in the cor­ner of an aban­doned shed, a young woman hud­dles hid­ing from the Cos­sacks rav­aging her shtetl, burn­ing homes, and killing Jews. Shay­na Rifkin, sev­en­teen, los­es every­thing. Des­per­ate to find safe­ty, she dreams of reach­ing Amer­i­ca. Shay­na res­cues her four-year-old nephew and with her fiancé and his moth­er braves a per­ilous trek across Europe. Shay­na’s courage and deter­mi­na­tion bind them togeth­er, weav­ing a strong fab­ric from their sep­a­rate threads to make a fam­i­ly, a safe place from which to build a new life in a new coun­try. This emo­tion­al­ly rich nov­el is steeped in the Yid­dish cul­ture of the shtetl and the Low­er East Side of New York in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth century.

Discussion Questions

We meet Shay­na Rifkin when she is a teenag­er in Obo­d­i­va, a shtetl in Ukraine. Shay­na, who is new­ly engaged, sees her world destroyed by the Cos­sacks. How­ev­er, her chal­lenges are just begin­ning, as her life is threat­ened and uproot­ed on her jour­ney to safe­ty and free­dom. She flees with her orphaned nephew, along with her future hus­band, Yus­si, and his stal­wart moth­er, Manya. Togeth­er and indi­vid­u­al­ly, they face what appear to be insur­mount­able obsta­cles. Shayna’s spir­it is test­ed and at times even frac­tured, but the love of Yus­si and his moth­er help pro­vide resilience when there is lit­tle to grasp. Their jour­ney through Bel­gium and even­tu­al­ly to Amer­i­ca, in steer­age, will give the read­er an inti­mate look at the plight of immi­grants in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. In Amer­i­ca, they reunite with a suc­cess­ful long-lost broth­er, who runs sweat­shops and proves to be anoth­er dis­ap­point­ment; the fam­i­ly love she sought to reclaim is shat­tered. Even­tu­al­ly, Shay­na suc­ceeds in cre­at­ing a bet­ter life and a lov­ing fam­i­ly. Through tal­ent and hard work, life in Amer­i­ca is no longer illusive.

This inti­mate glimpse into the immi­grant expe­ri­ence is both heart-wrench­ing and eye-open­ing. The author has gone to great lengths to insure authen­tic­i­ty and make the read­er feel con­nect­ed to the pro­tag­o­nist through­out her jour­ney. A won­der­ful, com­pelling, and sin­cere sto­ry of loss and discovery.