CM . . . .
Volume VII Number 17 . . . . April 27, 2001
I had thought I couldn't feel worse, but now I did. To be torn from my family was bad enough, but I'd assumed I'd be going to a Jewish home where everything would be familiar. They would have Shabbat dinner with fish and chicken, they would know everyone my family knew, it would be the same world. But a non-Jewish family? Goyish. Ukrainian? Many Ukrainians in the Old Country hated Jews. What if they were asking me there only to be mean to me just because I was Jewish. And how would I even understand them? I couldn't speak Ukrainian.These are some of the terrifying thoughts that run through Rebecca Bernstein's head when she discovers she is being placed in a foster home. Her extended family, the Churchill/Bernstein clan, has relocated to Winnipeg to find work and lodgings after losing everything - home, belongings, and money - in a fire at its Saskatchewan farm. But because the family consists of nearly twenty people, accommodating everyone under one roof proves impossible, and Rebecca's immediate family is forced to find its own lodgings. The problem is further compounded by her father's inability to land a job. With no income, Rebecca's parents must move in with cousins, while Rebecca and her younger brother and sister are placed in foster homes found through the Hebrew Sick Benefit Society. That in itself would be more than enough to rattle a timid girl like Rebecca, but when she is sent to a different home than her siblings - one that is not even Jewish - her anxiety becomes almost unmanageable.
The Kostaniuk home turns out to be every bit as bad as Rebecca feared. The father is anti-Semitic, one of the boys is a bully and, though the mother is kind to Rebecca, she does not speak English. The only redeeming aspect of this new "home" is the Kostaniuks' daughter, Sophie, a girl Rebecca's own age. The two hit it off right away.
Unfortunately, their budding friendship is tried time and again by the prejudices of both girls' families, as well as that of their schoolmates. Rebecca finds herself pulled in conflicting directions by peer pressure, love of family, her sense of loyalty, and her values. The book follows her as she searches for a way to pull the loose threads of her life together.
In this novel, set in the North End of early twentieth century Winnipeg, Carol Matas has presented an interesting conundrum. Burdened with problems that aren't of her making, Rebecca must find the inner strength to overcome the unwanted prejudices influencing her life.
Kristin Butcher lives in Victoria and writes for children.
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