CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 16. . . .December 20, 2013
Toronto, ON: Second Story Press, 2013.
278 pp., trade pbk. & epub, $12.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-927583-14-2 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-927583-15-9 (epub).
Grades 6-9 / Ages 11-14.
Review by Charlotte Duggan.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
That night, unable to sleep, she pictured herself as a fifty-year-old laundress, still toiling away in Shanghai. Rachel crept out of bed and left the room, clutching her empty stomach to curb the rumbling sounds. She made her way down the creaky stairs and out the door, moving toward a nearby streetlamp. Her felt shoes squashed down the mud, which stuck to her feet like clay. Night time had become her favorite part of the day, the only time when the streets were quiet, when even the animals seemed to close their mouths. Twisting her head to make sure she was alone, Rachel pulled the newspaper out from the waist of her skirt and started to read.
Rachel's Promise, the second book in a trilogy, picks up where Rachel's Secret ended. Rachel and her family have abandoned all hope of a safe and productive life in Russia following the murder of Rachel's father during the infamous 1903 pogrom of Kishinev. The grieving family boards a train for far away Vladivostok where they will then travel by ship to Shanghai, China. Teenaged Rachel is filled with fear and trepidation, but she remains courageous and hopeful as leads her family towards a new and unknown future.
The pogrom at Kishinev has also propelled Sergei, Rachel's gentile friend and secret romantic interest, to leave his family and abusive father. Knowing that his father stood by and watched as people were murdered and lives were destroyed fills Sergei with angry purpose and resolve. Sergi boards a train for St. Petersburg. There he will look for work, plan and save for the day he can reunite with Rachel in Shanghai or maybe America and avenge the deaths of the Jewish people in Kishinev.
Together, these two young people's stories, told in alternating chapters, provide authentic, personal accounts of the daily life of Russia's poor and oppressed during this volatile historical period. Like the first book in the trilogy, Rachel's Promise has been meticulously researched. All the grim details of the gruelling three thousand mile, three week train journey that Rachel's family endures have been captured here, as is the harrowing atmosphere of the five day sea voyage to Shanghai.
While Shanghai offers freedom and safety, there is little else here in this utterly foreign and inaccessible country for Jewish immigrants. Rachel and her sister work at menial, exhausting jobs while they attempt to save for their ultimate destination, America.
Meanwhile in St. Petersburg, Sergei seems to have exchanged one tormentor for another as he tries to eke out an existence in the harsh and dangerous world of a factory worker. Again, Sander's commitment to historical accuracy is to be commended. The notorious St. Petersburg strikes, which ended in the Tsar's troops opening fire on their own citizens, form the backdrop for Sergei's new life. As he allies himself with the leaders in the factory workers' struggle for better conditions, Sergei finds himself in the middle of a morally confusing terrorist plot.
The intense drama of each of these young people's stories provides an opportunity for Sanders to explore some fundamental questions about life. While Sergei questions his course of action in his dark and desperate circumstances, Rachel questions the place of religion in the wake of her father's murder. She tells her sister, "We have to make choices to do things that will improve our lives, instead of hoping for divine help that will never come." The result of this exploration is a very satisfying story on many levels.
While their struggles may sound bleak and depressing, Sanders' characters are anything but. Rachel is an intelligent, loving young woman. Her courage and determination are clear as she seeks out opportunities to become a writer despite the many obstacles in her path. And while Sergei's struggle seems more desperate, he, too, inspires hope through his determination to do the right thing. Both Rachel and Sergei's lives are filled with a wide variety of characters that complete the picture of the world Sanders has recreated.
Although not a challenging read, Rachel's Promise is best suited to students with an interest in historical fiction. And while this story does stand on its own, most readers will enjoy it much more if they have read the first novel in the series, Rachel's Secret.
Charlotte Duggan is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.
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