Thursday, May 27, 2010

Book review: Cursing Columbus by Eve Tal (Cinco Puntos, 2009)

There are many books out there that focus on immigrant stories, both historic and contemporary. Eve Tal's newest book, a sequel to her acclaimed novel Double Crossing, is a worthy addition to that genre. Her story focuses on two characters, a brother and a sister, who alternate as narrators in this young adult novel.

Three years have passed since Raizel and her Orthodox father fled the pogroms against the Jews in Czarist Russia for the possibilities of a new life on New York's Lower East Side. Papa has finally saved enough money to send for the rest of the family--Mama, baby Hannah, and Raizel's two brothers, Lemmel and Shloyme. In America, Raizel is thriving at school, learning English and trying to fit in. But adjusting to America is not so easy for her brother Lemmel, who hates school just as much in America as he did in their village. "Reading English was worse than Hebrew. There were letters with straight lines and letter with circles. I couldn't tell them apart and they jumped around on the page," he tells the reader. His younger brother quickly surpasses him in reading English, adding to Lemmel's discomfort with school.

Papa's not forgotten about Lemmel's upcoming bar mitzvah just because they've come to New York, but "no matter how hard I worked," Lemmel despairs, "I wouldn't be able to read a passage from the Torah. Because I couldn't read." It is clear to the contemporary reader that Lemmel is not lazy, like his teachers think, but probably dyslexic, a disability that no one understood in the early 20th century. Raizel, on the other hand, loves learning and school, even participating in a city contest for the best essay in honor of Columbus Day. She dreams of going to university one day and becoming a teacher, and of the possibility of romance with a young man, Reuben, whom she first met on the boat ride to America.

The day of Lemmel's bar mitzvah finally arrives, and he is so desperate to avoid the humiliation that he is certain awaits him that he runs away from home, falling into a life of petty crime on the streets of New York. His family is heartbroken, and to top things off Papa has lost his job. When Lemmel is arrested for breaking into a house, he is put on trial. Will the judge be able to see through to Lemmel's good heart? Will Rose have to quit school at age 14 to help support her family or will she be able to pursue her dreams of success in America? Fortunately the novel concludes happily with a new job for Papa, the redemption of Lemmel, and even a new baby for the family.

This is a novel that would be greatly enjoyed by anyone who was interested in exploring the immigrant experience in America, and would be an excellent choice for a multicultural unit at school on immigration. One aspect of the book that I especially appreciated was the way Tal portrays the many difficulties encountered in America by the immigrants. Despite the stories that circulated in "the Old Country" about the riches and plenty in America, many immigrants worked long hours in sweatshops, lived in cramped apartments, and even went hungry. The author does not shirk from portraying these harsh realities.

I was so touched by Tal's poignant and sensitively done story that I purchased her first young adult novel, Double Crossing, which I will review later in a separate post. However, Cursing Columbus can be read with no problem without having read the prior book.

Kudos to Tal for the excellent critical reception this book has received thus far; according to her website, Cursing Columbus has been chosen as chosen as a Sydney Taylor 2010 Notable Book for Teen Readers by the Association of Jewish Libraries and has also been selected as a finalist for the National Jewish Book Awards in the Childen's and Young Adult Literature category.

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