CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 26 . . . . March 9, 2012
The malicious attack described above is just the beginning of the horror that is about to explode in this novel set in Pre-Revolutionary Russia. What makes this attack most horrifying is that it is based on true events.
In April 1903, the gentile citizens of Kishinev (including and possibly led by Catholic priests) turned on the Jewish community and massacred as many as fifty-one people. Hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed and many people were injured (Wikipedia contributors. "Kishinev pogrom." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 9 Jan. 2012. Web. 15. Jan. 2012). Through the eyes and experiences of 14-year-old Rachel, the only witness to a murder that is the supposed catalyst for the violence, Rachel's Secret is a first-hand account of the Pogram of Kishinev.
First-time novelist Shelly Sanders masterfully reconstructs life in early 20th century Russia. And the skillful integration of the small details of daily life (the food, clothing, dwellings and activities) into a plot that is about to boil over, makes for a very rich reading experience. In the context of growing anti-Semitism, Rachel keeps what she knows about the murder a secret, fearing the corrupt police force will not believe her and that Jews will be blamed. Her fears are well-founded. It is not long before routine assaults of Jews explode into the infamous massacre which takes the lives of 51 people. Rachel, her mother and sister survive, but Rachel's father does not. In the aftermath of the massacre, Rachel struggles with both grief and guilt, believing that keeping what she knew about the murder a secret is what incited the violence. In the following weeks Rachel assumes a leadership role in her family and is ultimately able to lead her family to safety in America. Most importantly, Rachel steps forward to denounce the murderers. Rachel's act of courage points the way forward for all who wonder how to stand up in the face of ignorance and racism.
Sanders has created a terrific heroine in Rachel. She is feisty and independent, as well as warm and loving. Although Rachel's dreams of being a writer in a bigger world set her apart from her sister and friends, Sanders has grounded her in realistic dialogue and authentic relationships. Another appealing aspect of this novel is the balanced perspective on the people of Kishinev provided through Rachel's friendship with Sergei, a Christian. Sergei is horrified by his fellow citizens' attitudes and behaviour, and he acts to prevent the violence and then to make amends in its aftermath. In fact, it is through Sergei's disintegrating relationship with his own father, a policeman in a position to prevent the massacre, that readers gain insight to the psychology of racism.
Rachel's Secret would be an excellent addition to a middle school or junior high school study of racism. And although good storytelling is its most important feature, it is also a textbook example of the eight stages of genocide. For example, Sanders integrates the headlines from the newspapers of the day to illustrate the cunning effect of propaganda on people unwilling to ask more questions. Sanders should be commended for her ability to provide the shocking facts of this story while keeping her young adult audience in mind.
Charlotte Duggan is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.
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