New Historical Fiction
by Teri Kanefield, Front Street/Cricket Books, $15.95
Rivka Lieberman, a 15-year-old Jewish girl living in the Prague Ghetto in the 19th Century, is different from her friends, who arc all content to marry and live their lives within the confines of the Ghetto walls. “Am I the only girl in the world cursed with this restlessness?” she wonders. When she finally gets a chance to accompany her father into Prague, it only intensifies her longing. “The soaring feeling inside her that made her want to fling her arms wide was a secret she had to guard carefully,” writes Kanefield. Soon Rivka dares to impersonate a Gentile boy on short, bold forays into the city. During one such adventure, alone in Prague, she compares herself to Moses (“a stranger in a strange land”): “Had Moses felt this frightened yet deeply alive?” she asks herself When Rivka befriends a man who is unjustly thrown into debtor’s jail with no recourse, she is faced with a hard decision, to risk leaving the Ghetto again or Lo abandon this man to a grim fate. Her choice creates an uproar and deeply changes Rivka’s view of her world.
by Mirjam Pressler, translated from the German by Brian Murdoch, Phyllis Fogelman/Penguin Putnam, $17.99
In Shylock’s Daughter, a 16-year-old living in the Ghetto Nuevo of Venice in the 16th century chafes at her narrow life, restricted from without by the government of Venice, and from within by the endless rules of pious Jews. The story—told by two characters lifted from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice— Jessica herself (Shylock’s daughter) and Delilah (the maid) — unfolds as a tale of a high-spirited girl longing for the kind of life led by her secret Christian lover, Lorenzo, in beautiful Venice and beyond. Like Kanefield’s Rivka, Jessica laments, “1 want beauty, splendor, a bit of happiness… I don’t want to spend my entire life being humble and modest.”
Eventually, Jessica is forced to make a difficult choice: Life in the Ghetto with her bad-tempered and emotionally distant father (and with the Jews who look down on her sinful vanity), or life as a baptized Christian, married to the nobleman Lorenzo. Either decision will have a negative impact on both Jessica and her family, and a girlfriend warns her of the peril of making such decisions herself “How many girls know for sure that they have the right one [husband] if they are allowed to decide for themselves?” But the author (this is the feminist part of the book) creates a Jessica who believes otherwise, and who, in the end, trusts no one but herself to know what is right for her.
The War Within
by Carol Matas, Simon & Schuster, $16
Thus book, a third piece of historical fiction about a Jewish teenage girl, takes the form of the diary entries of Hannah Green, a 14-year-old living in the South during the Civil War. Raised with a scant sense of Jewishness but with strong Confederate sympathies, Hannah is shocked when the war begins and her family is forced out of their home by their own Confederate soldiers and then driven out of town by Federal soldiers who accuse all Jews of profiteering. Throughout the Greens’ journey to Cairo, Illinois, where they will obtain papers that allow them to travel freely as Jews, Hannah feels compelled to re-assess her relationship with different parts of her identity.
Unlike Rivka’s Way or Shylock’s Daughter, however, the plot of The War Within does not revolve around a girl’s yearning for adventure and the painful choices she is forced to make. Instead, Matas writes about how the Civil War makes one Jewish girl “grow up” as she confronts the impact of blind hate and racism, and as she matures beyond her “pre-War” self who confidently labeled people and held strict beliefs about Northerners, Southerners, Jews, Christians, Whites and Blacks. Matas convincingly portrays Hannah’s transformation into a young woman who comes to believe in tolerance, to empathize with slaves’ points of view, and no longer thinks that Federals are always wrong, Confederates always right, and “labels” always meaningful.
Anna Schnur-Fishman is a 9th grader at The Boston Latin School.