In this debut historical fiction, young teen Fanny Tatch escapes from her shtetl near Kiev to embark on a new life in America.
Rolling out strudels, 13-year-old Fanny Tatch feels like her life is rolling away, too. She’d like to receive an education like her brother, but she instead awaits another fate as a Jewish girl living in the Ukraine in the 1890s. Her father plans an arranged marriage for her, and worst of all, her mother is very ill. While visiting her dying sister, Fanny’s aunt Freda ignites her niece’s imagination with news that she and Freda’s much older husband, Avram, plan to immigrate soon to America. After Mama dies, Papa marries Ida, who schemes for Fanny to marry her oafish nephew. Then Avram dies, and Freda suggests that Fanny travel to America with her in his place. They quietly make their way out of the country, sliding past questioning Cossacks and arriving by ship in Manhattan, where Avram’s cousin Sophie and husband, Mendel, charge them room and board to stay in the couple’s Lower East Side apartment. Sophie also gets them jobs with her in the garment industry but becomes enraged when overseer Mike takes a shine to Freda and allows Fanny to work part time so she can attend school. Mendel also rather strangely withholds letters from Papa. These tensions ultimately drive Fanny and Freda out onto the streets, but it’s a blessing in disguise, as Fanny finds the keys to truly start their new lives. Constain, a retired teacher and school librarian, has drawn inspiration from her grandmother, also named Fanny Tatch, to develop this work of historical fiction. There’s a vibrant veracity throughout her smooth-flowing narrative, with Constain effectively conveying Jewish cultural details as well as Fanny’s wonder and engagement in learning. The story at times lacks nuance, though, with some rather one-dimensional villains and Cinderella-like turns of fortune. Overall, however, Constain has crafted a lovely coming-of-age novel that pays homage to her family history.
A simple yet charming tale that captures the hopes and challenges of the immigrant experience for Jewish women.