Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Letters from Rifka

Letters from Rifka
Karen Hesse
Holt, 1992    148 pgs     Grades 4-8

Written in a series of letter to her cousin back in Russia, Letters from Rifka offers a first person account of a young girl's journey to America from 1919-1920.  Rifka's story begins in Russia, where we see the prejudice and hardships endured by the Russian Jews of the time.  After a dangerous and secret escape, Rifka's family flees to Poland where they must remain for some time battling Typhus.  After overcoming the dreadful disease Rifka is detained again, this time with Ringworm.  Her family continues on to America, while Rifka is left behind with a kind family in Belgium to recuperate.  Months later after finally healing Rifka boards a ship and after a harrowing journey reaches America's shores.  Before finally reuniting with her family, Rifka is detained yet again, this time at Ellis Island because her baldness from the Ringworm has left concerns with the American authorities.  Rifka survives by her wits, kindness and ability to master new languages and finally is allowed to enter America, where she is reunited with her family and ready to start her new life.

Whew!  A lot happens in this book.  The plot keeps moving along at a steady clip and just when you think nothing else could possibly happen to this girl, another wrench is thrown into the works.  It makes for an exciting read which does not allow the reader to get bored, let alone take a breath.  Through it all, Rifka is a well developed and likable character.  During this whole process Rifka is only twelve and thirteen years old.  She is strong, resilient, brave, and intelligent.  Rifka provides a great role model, while sharing the struggle of immigration to a young audience.  Almost all American kids have an immigration story somewhere in their family tree and this book will encourage them to learn it.  Letters from Rifka is based on the real-life experiences of the authors's aunt, which makes the seemly fantastical story seem that much more so.  An introduction and historical note at the end provide background and authenticity.  I loved this book when it first came out in 1992 and after reading it again for a book club still love it.  Letter's from Rifka brings the past to life for young readers in an exciting and approachable way.  It encourages the reader to delve into their own past to pull out the stories that are lurking.

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