In Tucson Jo, acclaimed Jewish Young Adult writer Carol Matas tells the story of fourteen-year-old Jo Fiedler, the feisty and free-spirited daughter of a father based on the first Jewish mayor of Tucson. The story opens with the Fiedler family’s move from civilized Boston to the “Wild West” of Arizona. The Tucson the Fiedlers’ inhabit is one of shootouts and holdups, and Mr. Fiedler’s 1882 mayoral campaign is based on a desire for law and order. Mr. Fiedler’s opponent in the race, Mr. Ryan, though also the father of Jo’s best friend Connie, employs an anti-Semitic campaign against Mr. Fiedler.
Jo, an impassioned early feminist, feels oppressed by her father. She wants to wear pants and learn Talmud like her younger brother, and she astutely points out the discrepancies in autonomy based on gender at the time. Part of her father’s campaign is to create a greater sense of propriety for the citizens of Tucson, and Jo fears that under her father’s reign she will feel an even lesser sense of equality. Herein lies a conflict for Jo. She and Connie struggle to figure out what is right, and how they as adolescents can fight for the society they want to be part of.
Jo also struggles with her Jewish identity. At one point in the novel, her schoolmaster asks her to explain to the rest of the pupils what it means to be an Israelite, and Jo struggles to find a comprehensive answer. Ultimately, Jo is a strong and relatable character, fighting against being pigeonholed into the labels of “Jew” and “girl.”
With this 2014 National Jewish Book Award Finalist, Matas has created a work of historical fiction that paints a clear picture of late 19th century life in the Wild West. The book contains an afterword with photos of the Strauss family, the family on which the Fiedlers’ is based, and Matas gives an interesting explanation of her research process. Recommended for ages 10 and up, this is a fast-paced tale filled with both exciting action and deep moral quandaries, all driven by the likeable young “Tucson Jo.”