is a timely read for families.
Boshka is a Lithuanian Jew, living with her family in "the Pale," which is an area in her town of Vilna where all the Jews live as close neighbors. The residents of the Pale are terrorized occasionally by mobs of Russians who beat them, torture them, and worse. As the book begins, Boshka is embarking on a trip to the United States--leaving her mother, her father, her brothers, her home, her country...in the hopes of living in a land free of these threats. She seems excited to take this step, though sad to leave behind those special ones.
Right before Boshka enters the train, a woman from her town gives her a special pillow to take to her son who is already in America. This special pillow accompanies Boshka through all the experiences that she endures on her travels--a companion of sorts.
Boshka arrives in the United States and is given a new name, Elizabeth (which later evolves to Bessie, because, as her friend Miriam tells her, "(Elizabeth)...doesn't sound Jewish at all!"
I do not want to ruin the story for you...so I do not want to give you more of the story. Suffice it to say that the book follows Bessie to New York and then on throughout her life -- her friends, her family, her jobs, her sorrows, her joys, her successes, and more.
SO -- how did we like this book? My 12- year old daughter was the first to read this book. She read it straight through over the course of several days. Her comments throughout her reading were consistently, "This is such a good book!" She definitely enjoyed the fact that it is a true story, and there are photographs of many of the characters included within the pages.
She liked the fact that she got to learn about Bessie across her entire life, though she commented to me, "You'll be surprised at how fast it goes--it starts out taking a lot of pages to cover weeks, and then years pass by."
When she was done with the book, I took a turn and read it. Knowing how much my daughter had enjoyed it I was a little surprised at the sadness that permeated a lot of the story. Yes, there was hopefulness, but the truths of life were there as well. It was not a story of a nice and easy life, but rather one filled with challenges.
Since we homeschool, we used the teacher's guide for some writing prompts to kind of further process what was read in Bessie's Pillow. There are other resources to learn more about the setting and time of Bessie's Pillow on the website. You can learn more about European immigration, famous people, food and recipes, health, housework, movies, music and dancing, and more!
I think that part of what my daughter wrote as an answer to one of the questions sums up Bessie's story,
"Bessie's life was filled with struggles and hard-
ships, but she also learned to move on in life,
and she learned to love again."
Yes, there are a lot of sad parts (watch out if you're using this book as a read-aloud! You'll probably have a hard time reading through some parts without tearing up!) but I think it is totally appropriate for families to read together (even with younger children). My daughter is 12 and I think that age and up will enjoy reading this book independently. I would recommend this book, not as light or fluffy reading, but as a taste of an immigrant's life in the early 1900's.