Touched by Fire

Irene N. Watts
  • Review
By – February 17, 2014

Miri­am may only be a child as the nar­ra­tive begins but her expe­ri­ences cause her to devel­op into a remark­ably deep human being through­out this thought­ful chap­ter book. 

Watts’ sto­ry, set in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, brings this young girl’s chal­lenges to life for the read­er. As her fam­i­ly leaves Rus­sia to escape the pogroms, they move to Berlin and strug­gle to cre­ate a home and liveli­hood in a new city. Watt’s por­tray­al of Yuri, the young broth­er and his fas­ci­na­tion with the life of a sol­dier pre­pares us for the chaos that occurs with­in a fam­i­ly under the stress of per­se­cu­tion, impend­ing war and per­son­al choic­es. Their father’s crit­i­cal deci­sion to leave for Amer­i­ca with­out his fam­i­ly forces the fam­i­ly into the future, albeit sep­a­rate­ly. When the long await­ed tick­ets for Amer­i­ca arrive from her father, fate requires Miri­am to make the jour­ney on her own, leav­ing her moth­er, broth­er, sis­ter and grand­par­ents behind. Sur­viv­ing the voy­age, mak­ing new friends and reunit­ing with her father give Miri­am the courage to embrace the changes in an Amer­i­can life. 

Touched by Fire recounts the Tri­an­gle Shirt­waist Fire of 1911 and Miri­am works as a seam­stress in the fac­to­ry. Watts uses this his­tor­i­cal event not only as a back­drop to the dif­fi­cult life that a young girl would have lived in New York but also as a metaphor of what is to come. The fire caus­es death and disrup­tion, yet through it Miri­am devel­ops her own inter­nal strength. Miriam’s father reminds her, You owe it to those who were not spared to live a full life.” These words are a pre­cur­sor for Miriam’s future actions.

Watts is to be applaud­ed for car­ry­ing the sto­ry for­ward in the epi­logue to 1933 and plac­ing Miri­am in a posi­tion to assist her brother’s child to escape the grow­ing threat aris­ing in Ger­many. This fur­ther extends Miriam’s growth and her will­ing­ness to stand strong in the face of life’s chal­lenges. Watts has pro­vid­ed a well-doc­u­ment­ed and mov­ing account of what a young Jew­ish immi­grant faced in com­ing to Amer­i­ca. This is a valu­able sto­ry to uti­lize in dis­cussing immi­gra­tion, war and the Holo­caust with young students.

High­ly rec­om­mend­ed for ages 9 – 14.

Chris­tine Maas­dam holds a Mas­ters in Human­i­ties, cer­ti­fi­ca­tions in Muse­um Stud­ies and Cul­tur­al Prop­er­ty Pro­tec­tion. She is cur­rent­ly com­plet­ing her M.L.I.S. Her inter­ests are phi­los­o­phy and the impact of art and tech­nol­o­gy on culture.

Discussion Questions