Straw Bag, Tin Box, Cloth Suit­case: Three Immi­grant Voices

  • Review
By – November 8, 2023

Immi­grants to the Unit­ed States car­ry dif­fer­ent types of bag­gage. The items they pack with them often reflect their past expe­ri­ences and their hopes for the future. Such is cer­tain­ly the case in Straw Bag, Tin Box, Cloth Suit­case. Coau­thors Jane Yolen, Mar­jorie Lot­fi, and Raquel Eliz­a­beth Arti­ga de Paz — who have roots in Ukraine, Iran, and El Sal­vador, respec­tive­ly — describe the oppres­sion that drove them from their homes and the new lives their fam­i­lies built in America.

In the first sec­tion, Sarah finds an old straw hand­bag in her grandmother’s bed­room and is curi­ous about the arti­cles of cloth­ing inside. She learns that they belonged to her great-great-grand­moth­er, Manya, who was dri­ven from her shtetl in Ukraine by anti­se­mit­ic pogroms. She asks her grand­moth­er what a shtetl is, and also wants to know if Manya and her fam­i­ly trav­eled to Amer­i­ca by train. Her ques­tions reveal the gap between gen­er­a­tions that the con­ver­sa­tion needs to bridge. Only by locat­ing pieces of cloth­ing in their his­tor­i­cal con­text can Sarah begin to appre­ci­ate the obsta­cles to free­dom that Manya faced.

In the sec­ond sec­tion, we are intro­duced to Grace, whose moth­er and grand­par­ents escaped the shah’s dic­ta­tor­ship in Iran. She asks her moth­er about a rust­ed tin lunch box, which brings back mem­o­ries of a for­mer life. And in the third sec­tion, Raquel finds a cloth suit­case in a clos­et and is remind­ed of the bru­tal cir­cum­stances of her child­hood in El Sal­vador. Unlike Sarah and Grace, Raquel was direct­ly involved in the ter­ri­fy­ing inci­dents that drove emi­grants out. Her sto­ry, paired with those of the oth­er girls, shows us that injus­tice is not a rel­ic of the past — that the dif­fi­cul­ties faced by immi­grants are a dai­ly real­i­ty for many.

The text com­bines fac­tu­al nar­ra­tion with poet­ic details and metaphor. Grace’s moth­er relates how she dec­o­rat­ed her nails with pink rose petals instead of nail pol­ish. Raquel’s account is some­times stark, telling the unvar­nished truth: Every night bugs crawled over their faces. There was only one bath­room for all the peo­ple in the house.” Sarah’s grand­moth­er tells of how Manya and her rel­a­tives wait­ed anx­ious­ly to board the ship to Amer­i­ca, afraid that they would be denied pas­sage if they failed a health exam­i­na­tion. A mod­ern air­plane trans­port­ed Grace’s fam­i­ly mem­bers, but the trip was no less per­ilous. Nav­i­ga­tion devices had been removed from the plane in order to dis­cour­age emi­grants from leav­ing the coun­try. The appar­ent improve­ments of mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy could not pre­vent cor­rup­tion by dictators.

Foti­ni Tikkou’s rich­ly col­ored images stress both the dis­tinc­tive and uni­ver­sal aspects of immi­gra­tion. They also high­light the courage of the female char­ac­ters, who are moti­vat­ed to defy author­i­ty and care for the vul­ner­a­ble. Sarah’s grand­moth­er is dressed in mut­ed gray, but the bright red dress she holds up to her grand­daugh­ter con­nects them to Jew­ish life in East­ern Europe. A protest in Iran fea­tures some women wear­ing hijabs and oth­ers with long, uncov­ered hair.

The role of immi­grants is not an abstrac­tion in this inspir­ing book, which grants each char­ac­ter the dig­ni­ty of a par­tic­u­lar set of motives and con­se­quences. At the same time, the authors and illus­tra­tor por­tray immi­gra­tion as a for­ma­tive expe­ri­ence that unites Amer­i­cans. Straw Bag, Tin Box, Cloth Suit­case con­cludes with an after­word explain­ing the authors’ own fam­i­ly backgrounds.

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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