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 Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.