The Wood­carver’s Daughter

Yona Zeld­is McDo­nough, Kaja Kajfez (Illus­tra­tor)

  • Review
By – September 20, 2021

Yona Zeld­is McDonough’s lat­est mid­dle-grade nov­el is an acces­si­ble and beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten sto­ry about tra­di­tion and change in Jew­ish-Amer­i­can life. Twelve-year old Batya and her fam­i­ly live in an East­ern Euro­pean shtetl dur­ing the First World War. Her father is a respect­ed wood­carv­er who hopes that his son, Avram, will appren­tice with him and car­ry on the fam­i­ly trade. But it is Batya who is tru­ly gift­ed and inspired to become an artist in her father’s field. When a dead­ly pogrom forces them to emi­grate, Batya, her sib­lings, and their par­ents suf­fer the finan­cial hard­ships and sense of uproot­ed­ness of immi­grant life in New York City ear­ly in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Nar­rat­ed from Batya’s per­spec­tive, the nov­el con­veys the expe­ri­ence of Jew­ish immi­grants with many real­is­tic details and also rais­es ques­tions about social and eco­nom­ic changes and their impact on fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships. Batya’s heart­felt expres­sions of frus­tra­tion at the lim­i­ta­tions placed on girls will res­onate with young read­ers, and so will the unex­pect­ed sources of sup­port that ulti­mate­ly enable her to achieve her dream.

The appar­ent art­less­ness of Batya’s nar­ra­tive is actu­al­ly the prod­uct of McDonough’s sophis­ti­ca­tion as an author. While Batya’s thoughts are com­plete­ly con­vinc­ing as the self-expres­sion of an intel­li­gent twelve-year old, her words also ring with sub­tle poet­ry, ele­vat­ing the text. When she vis­its a fair ear­ly in the book, the mar­velous carousel hors­es make a deep impres­sion: Oth­ers are gray, and oth­ers all the shades of brown: hon­ey, nut­meg, cin­na­mon, choco­late. Their sad­dles are scar­let, mid­night blue, gold, and green.” Lat­er, when she is liv­ing in New York and vis­it­ing a carousel work­shop in Coney Island, she echoes her ear­li­er impres­sions of the hors­es’ beau­ty, although much has changed in her life: They’re paint­ed in a rain­bow of col­ors: scar­let, apple green, roy­al blue, vio­let, pump­kin, ebony, and daz­zling white.” Batya’s artis­tic nature con­stant­ly sur­faces in her words, even as the cir­cum­stances of her life s con­spire against a career for her as a craftswoman. Batya’s obser­va­tions of the world around her, from the life­like carousel hors­es to the New York City sub­way, are always visu­al­ly acute.

Sev­er­al par­al­lels emerge in the sto­ry. Batya longs to cre­ate beau­ti­ful objects while her broth­er, Avram, although des­ig­nat­ed to fol­low his father’s path, has no inter­est in becom­ing a wood­carv­er. In the work­shop, Batya meets Sophia, the niece of one of the work­ers. While Batya avoids attend­ing school just for the oppor­tu­ni­ty to spend time with the arti­sans, Sophia resents hav­ing to help there, because she aspires to become a teacher or a nurse. As with the roles rigid­ly assigned to Batya and her broth­er, parental and soci­etal expec­ta­tions seem irra­tional to chil­dren. Batya thinks to her­self, Too bad she and I can’t trade places. Then we’d both be hap­pi­er.” Anoth­er par­al­lel involves Batya’s youngest sis­ter, Sarah, who los­es her hear­ing after a severe ill­ness. Sarah becomes psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly impris­oned, unable to com­mu­ni­cate her needs and intense­ly frus­trat­ed. Although her lim­i­ta­tions are much more pro­nounced than Batya’s, both girls are the vic­tims of adults who can­not under­stand their needs.

The novel’s res­o­lu­tion is opti­mistic, but not implau­si­ble. Miss Flan­nery, a com­pas­sion­ate pub­lic school teacher, rec­og­nizes that both Batya and Sarah deserve respect and accom­mo­da­tions to their needs. Batya’s par­ents also come to real­ize that life in Amer­i­ca offers more pos­si­bil­i­ties than the restrict­ed range of choic­es in their shtetl. Change was grad­ual, but greater edu­ca­tion­al and career oppor­tu­ni­ties did open up to immi­grants. By choos­ing to focus on a less­er-known voca­tion, rather than on high­er edu­ca­tion or oth­er pro­fes­sions pre­vi­ous­ly closed to women, McDo­nough has cre­at­ed an unfor­get­table char­ac­ter, as unique as the metic­u­lous­ly craft­ed objects that Batya designs and brings to life.

This high­ly rec­om­mend­ed book includes a time­line of sig­nif­i­cant his­tor­i­cal events, a glos­sary, and an author’s note explain­ing the sources for the sto­ry. Kaja Kajfez’s del­i­cate black-and-white draw­ings at the begin­ning of each chap­ter enhance the book.

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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