Bessie's Pillow, written by Linda Bress Silbert, is a historical novel, based on the true story of the author's grandmother and her immigration from Lithuania's Jewish ghetto to escape persecution, which we were given to reveiw. After reading the excerpt on the publisher, Strong Learning, Inc., website, I was hooked, and when it arrived (finally!) I sat down and started it.
By the end of the day, I'd read half the book.
If I hadn't been trying to get over the flu, I would have been seriously tempted to stay up late and finish it. Instead, I finished the story before noon the next day. It was a beautiful story and a page-turner. I added this excerpt to my commonplace book, from an exchange Bessie has with her father early in the book:
"No, Tateh, I am afraid," I say, and begin to cry.
"Boshka," he replies, "There will come many times in your life when you are afraid. In these moments, you must surrender your fear and go wherever [the moment] takes you, and trust that you have the strength to do what you must to survive."
-Bessie's Pillow, p36
I think this piece of timeless wisdom, all the more poignant for having come from a rabbi in a ghetto who, knowing he will never see her again, sends his daughter away to safety, encapsulates the message of the book. The story is the story of how she lives this counsel, over and over and over again throughout her life.
Once I had read the book myself, I knew that it wasn't suitable for a family read-aloud, which is what I had first planned for it: my younger two are not ready for all of the challenges Bessie faces. Bessie is fortunate to be able to travel first class, and to have well-off friends and family to assist her when she arrives in America as a refugee. But she comes from the Jewish ghetto, where the pogroms -mobs that attacked the Jews- go on violent rampages with torches and weapons, where parents try to protect their daughters from rape at the hands of the pogroms, and and where the Russians conscript Jews and send them, poorly clothed and often unarmed, to the front lines of the war. Most of the Jewish conscripts do not come home. It's a harsh life, and the author does her readers the favor of showing the reality of it. At one point after coming to America Bessie takes a job for a few days in a sweatshop sewing factory, where she is locked in with all the rest of the women who are sewing, and treated very poorly, before she is unjustly fired. Bessie also sees the harsh realities of tenement living. And the author remains faithful to her family history when scarlet fever takes the two of Bessie's children, only a day apart. All this is done tastefully, and it's particularly good and timely to have this kind of story when there are so many refugees in the world right now, and immigration is such a hot topic. It's good to have stories of why people become refugees and immigrants, even if it's only part of the book. But I think it's a little much for Dragon(6) and Peanut(4). However, Hero(10) is old enough and mature enough to begin to see the hard realities of the world, and this book did nicely as his next lesson on that point, both in the lessons of seeing the things that Bessie saw, and also in terms of Bessie's own reaction to these things, which was uniformly compassionate and caring. She really was a remarkable woman.
At that point, having read it myself, it was time to give it to my son. I talked to him after he'd started it, to make sure that he understood why it was worth it to Bessie's family to send her away like they did: he hadn't. Although he knows something about our Church's history, and the mobs that our people faced even here in America, I don't think that it's terribly real to him yet, and he didn't understand this either. So we had a conversation about that. And he kept going back to the story. I'd asked him to read the first three chapters (they're short; that was about 15 pages), and he just kept going: he was hooked. It didn't take him a lot longer to read it than what it took me. I know that he kept thinking about it, though, because a week or two after he'd finished the book, he was sweeping the kitchen and commented on a part of the story where Bessie chases someone with a broom. I like a book that keeps us thinking, even after it's done. That's one of the marks of good literature.
Because we got sick (and that was so fun we did it again), we didn't really dig into the extras that the author has collected on her site, as we've spent a lot of this winter just trying to keep our heads above water on the basics while we caught Every Cold Invented. But there are some really fun-looking resources on there: radio shows, dance steps, recipes, all kinds of things to help you place Bessie in her historical context in a more visceral way. There are also other resources for looking through Ellis Island immigration records, and information about the ships that Bessie and her brothers traveled on, the Hamburg-American line, including fun things like diagrams of the ships and menus for what they ate on board. I think that, if you get a chance to read other reviews (click the banner below for a list of all the Review Crew members who are reviewing this book), that some members of the Review Crew even found that they had ancestors who came through Ellis Island!