________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 4. . . .September 30, 2016


Sammy and the Headless Horseman.

Rona Arato.
Toronto, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2016.
225 pp., trade pbk., $13.95.
ISBN 978-1-55455-269-6.

Subject Headings:
Headless Horseman (Fictitious character)-Juvenile fiction.
Hotels-Catskill (N.Y.)-Juvenile fiction.
Detective and mystery stories.

Grades 5-9 / Ages 10-14.

Review by Mary Thomas.

*** /4



"There you are." Aunt Pearl was standing in the lobby with Joshua on one side of her and Leah on the other. She was tapping her foot a sure sign that she was annoyed. She explained that Sammy was sleeping in a bungalow because he was hired help.

... "Hired help?" Sammy looked at her in surprise. "You mean I'm working here?"

"Just a few hours a day," said Aunt Pearl. "To pay your expenses."

"Does Papa know you brought me up here to work?"

"Sammy, darling." Aunt Pearl looked down her rather prominent nose. "I am not sending you to dig coal in a mine. Just a little help in the kitchen here and there. Besides," she said, pointing to Adam and Shayna, "I'm sure you'll be much happier with young people like yourself than with us upstairs."

To that, Sammy had no argument. Even the coal mine sounded better than staying with Aunt Pearl and the Awful Joshua.


What do you do when you, and your father, think that your Aunt Pearl is kindly taking you with her own two children to stay at a resort hotel in the Catskills and you find that you are actually expected to be a general helper in the kitchen and dining room? In 11 year old Sammy's case, you accept the inevitable with good grace and make the best of it. Indeed, it could have been much worse! This way he gets to share a room with 14 year old Adam, an old hand at working at the hotel, instead of with his cousin, known familiarly as the Awful Joshua, and as a bonus he can help with the nightly entertainments for the guests as straight man for the stand up comedian and improv artist Moishe. This is all good fun except for the getting up at five in the morning! until there are a series of pranks involving an apparently headless horseman (recalling Washington Irving's famous story of the Catskills), an escaped slave who lives just up the hill, and the evening entertainments at the hotel. The disruptions caused by the horseman have some of the guests threatening to leave in a huff or a panic. Are these occurrences racist, or is there some other motive? Sammy, Adam, Shayna (who is the daughter of the owners of the hotel) and Awful Joshua (who threatens to tell his mother if he isn't included in their plans) decide to find out what is behind these appearances, preferably before the hotel is driven out of business.

     The story moves along briskly, grabbing and holding the reader's interest with the unfolding events, but what I actually found more interesting was the picture it draws of both positive and negative racism. Sammy is Jewish, the Pine Grove Hotel is not only run by Jews and for Jews, but it is a kosher establishment where Gentiles might feel rather uncomfortable, to say the least. Sammy belongs to the Jewish gang in New York (of which his father did not approve and which was one of the reasons why Aunt Pearl was enlisted to whisk him off to the Catskills for the summer). Almost everybody hangs out together with its own group racism by choice, as it were. Then there is the antagonism or negative racism between the old fashioned mountain men, and Zeke, the black ex slave. This was more or less accepted as the way things were in the period between the wars when a family vacation was just becoming an affordable reality for relatively new immigrants to the U.S. For me, the Jewish flavour of the book adds to its charm Yiddish words, milk and meat dishes that must be kept separate, and so forth. It does no harm for kids to see another culture and how separate it can be while still being part of the American melting pot.

     One of my favourite pick it up/put it down books is The Joys of Yiddish with its wry humour, self deprecating stories, and wonderful cadences of language. Sammy and the Headless Horseman, the book, has some of the same flavour and charm, and, at the same time, Sammy, the character, is a real boy with courage and ambition who should appeal to a wide audience. It's a good combination.


Mary Thomas lives in Winnipeg, MB, but summers in Ontario and holidays in Oxford and so has plenty of opportunity to see cliques/racist groups in different settings.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.

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