I finished Karen Hesse's Letters from Rifka a few days ago. Hesse's work simply cannot disappoint. I fell in love with the beautifully woven Out of the Dust a couple of years ago and am so happy to have added another of her titles to my classroom bookshelf. Next is The Music of Dolphins.
Letters. . . tells the story of a Jewish family on a desperate escape from their circumstances in Russia. Set in the 1920's, the novel weaves a personal tale of what it meant to face the hatred and restrictions placed on Jews by Russian peasants in an economically devastated region. The violence against Jews was incited by the Russian government in order to distract Russian peasants from the injustices plaguing their own lives.
Rifka's family is leaving in order to save the brothers of the family from having to serve any further in the Russian army. But all does not go as planned, and Rifka is left behind while her family goes on to America on account of a case of ringworm that prevents her from passing health inspections necessary to board ship.
Some reasons I enjoyed this title:
-Like Out of the Dust, the structure of Letters. . . is accessible, particularly for readers who struggle with staying focused through long blocks of text. As the title suggests, Rifka's story is broken into letters spanning 3-4 pages, each written to a cousin back home.
-Those letters make it clear that Tova, Rifka's cousin and the daughter of the uncle that aided Rifka's family's escape, lives a life dramatically removed from the misery of most Russian Jews. The reason why resonates today: money. Tova's father has money, Tova's family is safe from the worries of their kinsmen. Hesse makes the child narrator keenly aware of what it means to have socioeconomic privilege, and what it means not to, and in doing so equips us all to see that it really is that elementary, and that sad.
-It's a historical novel, but not overtly so--a good thing for some readers who are hesitant to plunge into something requiring what may seem to be an awful lot of background knowledge. In fact, the information I gave about about the turmoil faced by Russian Jews was gleaned for the most part from the historical note the follows the ending of the novel (oh, you already knew all about all that history? Whatever.). Although the story does personalize the suffering faced by Rifka, her family and others like them, it does not spend too much time on developing the external circumstances I describe above. Rifka notes injustices such as Jews only being able to own 2 of any given item, but the novel steers away from grand explanations of the political issues of the time, thus maintaining the authenticity of the child's perspective.
-Rifka's brothers are refusing to serve in the Russian army, mostly in objection to the way Russian Jews were treated. Conscientious objection of any sort is brave.
-Rifka tries makes the best of even the most dire circumstances. She overcomes her self-pity while undergoing treatment in Antwerp and spends time exploring and learning a new language. She even holds her own mitzvah celebration when she turns 13, away from her parents and in a strange place. When a storm takes the life of a sailor she befriends aboard the ship that eventually takes her to America, Rifka goes to work alongside the ship's crew, unasked, to help repair the damage and clean up the ship. And, finally, when Rifka waits in a hospital on Ellis Island to finally be cleared to enter America, she cares for a baby and a young boy who are without parents. Her selflessness postpones the death of the baby and rescues the young boy from the depths of depression.
-Rifka is a writer! In addition to the letters she writes, which are, btw, in the white space of a book of Pushkin, she eventually writes her own poetry.
-The nuances of overlap and conflict between cultural/religious groups are explored as Rifka cares for the little boy, who happens to be a Russian peasant--the group responsible for her family's misery and oppression. Despite her guilt, she feels compelled to care deeply for him and understands that humanity binds us all, regardless of our allegiances.
-Rifka takes a stand against the immigration official who assumes that she will not be able to marry because she is bald (from the ringworm), and thus will end up relying on the government for assistance. She offers a passionate plea and notes that a woman does not need hair to be married, nor need to be married to be successful. She convinces the patriarchal figure that she is right, and is admitted entry to America.