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.