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Volume VIII Number 1 . . . . September 7, 2001
There is nothing like a bit of "being done to" to make one realize what one has been doing to others. Hannah is a 13-year-old girl in the process of being raised to be a Southern lady in Mississippi in the middle of the American Civil War. Her family is Jewish, observant although not aggressively so, and like all middle-class people in Holly Springs, they have a few slaves whom they treat well---but own. In spite of the fact that Hannah's father and older brother, along with many others of the townspeople, are fighting for the Confederacy, the Union soldiers who have taken over the town have treated the citizens well, allowing commercial operations, including the Green's general store, to function, and social gatherings to take place as usual. In the aftermath of one of these balls, the Confederate Army retakes Holly Springs for long enough to burn the supplies the North has been amassing for its attack on Vicksburg, destroying much of the town in the process, including the Green's house. That this disaster came at the hands of "their boys" makes it particularly hard to accept. When the town is retaken by the North, an edict has just come down from Ulysses Grant that all Jews are to be expelled from his "department," i.e., the territory under his jurisdiction, because of their profiteering from the war. No doubt merchants had profiteered, and no doubt some of those who did so were Jews, but there was no evidence that this was generally the case, and, in fact, President Lincoln rescinded the order about three weeks after it was issued. In the meantime, however, Hannah and her family were forced to travel with the Union army to Memphis, at first riding in their carriage with their three household slaves in attendance, and then walking when their vehicle was commandeered for the wounded. Some slight leniency was shown them because their slaves confirmed that the Greens had treated them well, but good treatment was not sufficient to keep two of the slaves from deserting the family and taking their chance to be free. In the end, the family is taken care of by the Jewish community in Memphis, Hannah's father is reunited with them, her older sister, who has fallen in love with a Yankee officer wounded in the battle of Holly Springs, decides to remain in Memphis until she can get married, and the younger brother prepares to set off to join the Southern Army.
Civil war is never comfortable, and wars are always risky, so how things actually turn out for Hannah cannot be certain. She has, however, begun the process of growing up, not into a conforming Southern lady, but into a thinking human being, meditating, among other questions, on the question of just who is her neighbour. And the family has freed the rest of their slaves. This is a thoughtful novel, sympathetically portraying the conflict inherent in any two-sided situation---and what situation does not have two sides! It is also interesting to realize that the Nazis did not invent wartime persecution of Jews.
Mary Thomas works in two elementary schools in Winnipeg, MB.
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