This picture book for children is based on the life of the author’s mother’s best friend Phyllis. It is similar to, and thus emblematic of, the stories of other immigrants who passed through Ellis Island around the turn of the 19th century. Millions of people were desperate to get out of their own countries, or at least get their children out, in order to protect them from danger and/or to enable them to have better lives.
Many Jews, like Gittel, the little girl in the story, came from families who lived in “The Pale of Settlement.” The Pale, officially designated as such between 1791 to 1917, was a western region of Imperial Russia in which the residence of Jews was legally authorized. “Beyond the Pale,” Jewish residency was mostly forbidden. Jews from other parts of Russia and Eastern Europe were relocated to the Pale, although it was not exclusively Jewish. (The English term pale is derived from the Latin word palus, a stake, extended to mean the area enclosed by a fence or boundary.)
In the late 19th and early 20th century, Jews in the Pale were subjected to massive anti-Semitic attacks called pogroms. These violent riots generally entailed looting, rapes, and even murders. They were carried out with government approval and even by government officials themselves.
The worst pogroms were in the years between 1881-1883 and 1903-1906, causing a mass exodus of Jews to other countries. Some two million Jews emigrated from there between 1881 and 1914, mainly to the United States.
[As it turned out, they were fortunate not only to escape the pogroms, but to be far away from Hitler’s advance troops into Russia in World War II, the Einsatzgruppen. The mission of the Einsatzgruppen as they went through the former Pale was primarily to kill Jews. They were remarkably successful, as only five percent of Jews in the area survived the Holocaust.]
When Gittel and her mother went to the port for the ship to America, Gittel’s mother was not allowed to leave because she was suspected of having a virulent and contagious form of eye infection. She insisted Gittel go on without her, and gave her a piece of paper with the address of a cousin in New York for when she arrived. [There is an interesting and informative article on the suspicion of immigrants having trachoma and its association with anti-immigrant sentiment, particularly against Jews, here.]
Needless to say, the address was illegible by the end of the trip. A Yiddish interpreter helped Gittel by putting her picture in the Jewish newspaper and asking if anyone recognized her. By the next afternoon, her mother’s cousin came to take her home.
In this story, Gittel’s mama arrives in the United States soon thereafter. In the actual story told to the author as related in the Author’s Note at the end of the book, Phyllis never saw either her mother or father again.
The Author’s Note also provides some information about the pogroms and Ellis Island.
“I wanted it to have a little bit of a folk tale feel because I really feel like being an immigrant it is a part of our collective American story.”
She explained that she designed her pages to look as if readers were looking through beautifully carved window casements into a different world.
When you read the book you will notice that the windows change when Gittel arrives in America.
Besides the Author’s Note, the author includes a glossary and bibliography of materials related to Ellis Island.
Evaluation: This warm story presents the immigrant experience in a realistic light, providing resources for a more in-depth look if readers want to pursue the subject.
Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2019