Wednesday, July 24, 2013
Her Mother's Secret - Barbara Garland Polikoff
Author: Barbara Garland Polikoff
Publisher: Allium Press of Chicago, 2012 (Paperback)
Length: 169 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Historical Fiction
Started: July 22, 2013
Finished: July 23, 2103
Fifteen-year-old Sarah, the daughter of Jewish immigrants, wants nothing more than to become and artist. But as she spreads her wings she must come to terms with the secrets that her family is only beginning to share with her. Replete with historical details that vividly evoke the Chicago of the 1890s, this moving coming-of-age story is set against the backdrop of a vibrant, turbulent city. Sarah moves between two very different worlds-the colourful immigrant neighbourhood surrounding Hull House and the sophisticated, elegant World's Columbian Exposition. This novel eloquently captures the struggles of a young girl as she experiences the timeless emotions of friendship, family turmoil, loss...and first love.
I picked this up mainly because I hadn't read a good historical fiction piece in a while, and I like stories about the immigrant experience. This story is unique in that it's about a family of Jewish immigrants, but doesn't take place in the context of the Second World War and the Holocaust (or afterwards).
The book opens in 1892 in Chicago. Sarah is fifteen and lives with her parents, older sister Fanny, and younger brother Sammy in an immigrant neighbourhood. Conditions vary depending on circumstance (Sarah's family is lucky to have indoor plumbing), and sickness and death happen more often than not. Sarah is the odd one out in her family, dark instead of fair like her siblings, and definitely not her mother's favourite. Quiet and talented, she manages to convince her parents to allow her to take an art class at Hull House, a community centre catering to the needs of the immigrant population. In an environment away from her sheltered family, she begins to blossom, but her mother's sudden illness and sister's disappearance threaten Sarah's newfound independence.
This makes for a quick read, but there's a lot of details in this book that also make it an interesting one. Sarah's parents are Russian Jews, so there's some mention of the czar and pogroms and the reason they left for America. Sarah's parents are also very insular even amongst the other immigrant nationalities, freaking out when Fanny falls for an Irish boy; but they actually give an legitimate answer to explain why. This is juxtaposed with Sarah's different experiences and her willingness to mingle with everyone. I loved everything about Hull House: the community, the classes, the fact that they had doctors/midwives available in emergencies, and the fact that it was founded by a woman is amazing.
The 'secret' mentioned in the title, while not seemingly huge, is actually a pretty big deal coming from the perspective of a mother. So I'm not sure how I feel about that, but that was only a small focus of the book for me.
A quick read but full of wonderful details about the immigrant experience in 1890s Chicago.
Thoughts on the cover:
Appropriate considering the subject matter, too bad they couldn't get the archive photo to match the character descriptions (I'm assuming the two girls are supposed to be Sarah and Fanny or Sarah and Bianca).