A Jewish girl in Eastern Europe and her teenage American cousin experience the Holocaust years in vastly different ways in this bittersweet novel.
Debut novelist Berger found her inspiration in stories she overheard as a child, as she writes in her acknowledgements. She treats her material with delicacy and occasional awkwardness. The book begins with an account by 8-year-old Rosha in 1941 of her life in the Jewish ghetto of Vilna as her family prepares for the Sabbath and awaits the arrival of her father, who shows up late with a six-pointed yellow star and the word JUDE newly displayed on his sleeve. The next chapter, set in the same year but in Brooklyn, is far more lighthearted, as it introduces Mira, an 18-year-old fashion-design student who's trying to sneak out of her traditional home wearing dramatic makeup in emulation of the movie stars she adores. The story continues in a series of short chapters told from different viewpoints, though only Rosha’s tale, which turns out to be about being hidden in a basement by a Catholic Polish woman, is in the first person. The extended Brooklyn family is deeply affected by the grim news they receive about their Vilna relations, all of whom they believe to be dead. Berger has created compelling characters, including Mira’s autocratic father and her two maiden aunts, and is especially insightful about the complications of family ties during stressful times. But the book sometimes seems strained as it tries to balance a host of larger issues, like gender roles during and after World War II, with more intimate details. Tenses and prepositions get tangled sometimes, as in this description of how Mira’s beau interacts with her family: “Nathan listened to all sides of the story and acted like a natural mediator, when indeed he was to become the family’s buffer.”
A tender look at immigrants in America and Nazi victims in Europe succeeds in educating and engaging readers.