From the Publisher
“Based on the author's life, it is a book with history, drama, and good writing.” Association of Jewish Libraries Reviews
“The characters, and most notably Anya, are well crafted and believable.” BCCB
“A delightfully textured…glimpse at a little-remembered period of Jewish history.” Kirkus Reviews
“An important addition to the literature about WWII refugees.” Booklist
Children's Literature - Elizabeth D. Schafer
Anya Rosen, who celebrates her fourteenth birthday in 1937, feels lost. She escapes with her parents and maternal grandparents from Odessa, Russia after her father refuses to support the Communist Party, risking execution by Josef Stalin's dictatorship. The Rosens settle into their foreign community sanctuary within Shanghai, China, adapting to Chinese customs while retaining their Jewish traditions. Fearing the impending threat of a Japanese military invasion, Anya records her worries and joys in a diary which she hides from her family. Anya's mother, an opera singer who has performed throughout Europe, misses singing on stage even as she prepares Anya for a similar career. Uninterested in pursuing music professionally, Anya aspires to attend a New York university and become a physician. Her life is consumed with routines: gathering groceries, attending school, practicing piano, and interacting with servants, especially cook Li Mei. Anya tends her pet birds, endures her younger brother Georgi's intrusions, and frets about the whereabouts of her vanished heroine, Amelia Earhart. Riding her bicycle through Shanghai, Anya is confronted by despair and poverty. She rescues a discarded baby girl, naming her Kisa. A tragic incident emboldens Anya to declare her hopes and recognize her strengths. Anya's conflicts regarding her future, relationships, and gender and economic inequities are believable. These could have been strengthened with more diary entries expressing her agitation in Anya's first-person voice instead of being told with third-person exposition. An author's note clarifies how her relatives inspired this novel. For Chinese children's perspectives of Shanghai circa the time Anya lived there, pair with Margaret and Raymond Chang's In the Eye of War (1990). Corinne Szabo's Sky Pioneer: A Photobiography of Amelia Earhart (1997) provides contemporary images Anya might have seen. Reviewer: Elizabeth D. Schafer
It's 1937, and Anya is becoming accustomed to Shanghai. Her family had to flee Odessa in the night after Papa told that ugly policeman he wouldn't join the Communist Party. Now China is home for her whole family: Papa, Mama (a former opera singer), Mama's parents, Babushka and Dedushka, and baby brother Georgi. In Shanghai's French Quarter, they live Jewish lives as if the Japanese weren't advancing on the city. Anya's biggest worry is the prospect of telling her mother she doesn't want to become an opera singer—until the day she finds a baby in the gutter. Will Mama and Papa let her keep the baby? Anya's Shanghai is richly chaotic, polyglot and packed with refugees. Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew, Mandarin Chinese and Italian pepper the dialogue. Meanwhile, immigrant Anya happily devours her buckwheatpiroshkiwith chopsticks after Papa has recited the Hebrew blessings over the food. The chaos of the prose is less felicitous; characters whisk between conversations without segue. A delightfully textured—but confusingly rushed—glimpse at a little-remembered period of Jewish history.(Historical fiction. 10-12)
Read an Excerpt
Friday, July 23, 1937
Anya pedaled her new red bicycle across the thirsty lawn to save her tires from melting on the hot cement. Mama’s gardeners, Yat-sen and Pearl, stopped watering the row of drooping peonies and yelled at her. By her sixth month living in Shanghai, Anya could unscramble most Chinese phrases. Those words were bad enough she didn’t want to repeat them in her mind. She almost asked, “Didn’t your mothers teach you it’s rude to point a hose at Stella Rosen’s daughter?” But she stopped the question from tumbling out. According to Li Mei, mosquitoes flew in and laid eggs on the tongues of foreign girls who stared at the Chinese with their lips apart.
At first, Li Mei’s warnings had annoyed Anya. When Anya mumbled a derogatory comment about Babushka under her breath, Li Mei said, “A bad word whispered will echo one hundred miles.” When Anya moped around the kitchen, missing Odessa, she said, “You cannot stop the birds of sadness from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from nesting in your hair.”
So she imagined the day of her return to Odessa. She would drink a bottle of Coca-Cola in the shade of the linden tree where Papa took the first day of school photo every year with her oldest friends, Luba, Angelica, and Lily. Luba was oldest so she stood on the far left, then Angelica, then Lily. Anya was last because she was the youngest. When she felt lonely, she arranged the photos in a line on the dining room table, starting with Kindergarten, 1929, and compared where on the linden trunk the four friends’ heads reached from year to year. In the last photo, Grade 8, 1936, Anya was four feet, ten inches tall, the shortest girl—the Jewish girl—the one unlucky enough to have a head of frizz.
* * *
Over an hour ago, Li Mei gave Anya the grocery list and demanded that she chop-chop to Katznelson’s, the kosher butcher. Tonight was meat night and Li Mei was making beef piroshki. Would Papa drag home a surprise guest to share the meal? Last week the Sephardic man he invited removed his sandals at the front door. Hairy-toed feet padding across her gleaming floors revolted Mama. Feet were a morbid curiosity to Anya. The only bare feet she’d seen inside Mama’s house were her own flat pair. Madame Tarakanova counseled her to give up ballet; she would never get her pointe shoes and attain grace without proper arches.
Predicting she would have a table full to feed, Li Mei had doubled her recipe for the fried meat pies. Anya read aloud Li Mei’s description of the main ingredients:
• 3 lb. beef: Ask the butcher to show you the meat before he wraps it. Check for bright red color with specks of fat. Don’t let him trick you with brown meat.
• 2 medium yellow onions: Check the skin for mold.
The last items—two pomelos—were included each Friday on the list Li Mei scribbled on Mama’s monogrammed stationery: no holes in the skin. Shake them good and listen for juice.
Anya knew how to choose a stupid onion, and by then, the pomelos, but she never stayed annoyed for more than a couple of seconds because, beneath the word “juice,” Li Mei had drawn a cartoon picture of Anya’s smiling face surrounded by a crown of curlicues.
Before Shanghai, Anya didn’t know the word for the odd-looking grapefruit the size of a bowling ball. Li Mei claimed pomelo could cure her mother’s bad habit of hollering and added segments to Mama’s salad daily. Mama liked the flavor, a sweet and tart cross between strawberries and an unripe orange. Li Mei peeled a bowl full for Anya’s birthday yesterday, without once squirting juice in her eyes.
But Mama hadn’t smiled at the party—not even the tiniest lift of her mouth corners—when Anya puffed her cheeks like a chipmunk and blew out fifteen candles—fourteen plus one to grow on—with one big typhoon of a breath. Good girls didn’t anger so she hung her head, instead of pushing her chin up and looking Mama in the eyes and admitting what was on her mind.
Will I be miserable in Shanghai on my next birthday? Will Mama ever be the mama I had B.C.?
Before China, Anya didn’t try to stay out of her way. They drank darjeeling tea together in the afternoons, sitting on chairs by the window overlooking yellow, broom-covered cliffs. Georgi played in the anteroom he called Mount Olympus. He wore armor made by Vulcan, fought murderous giants and monsters with one hundred eyes, and evil dragons with his sword, Excalibur. Mama tittered when he held the wooden replica across his chest diagonally and said, “Follow me, men.”
Now Mama’s sad eyes stared out; eyes that were dull as a muddy pond, dark as Erebus, the place souls passed through on their way to Hell. As if she were asking, why must we mingle with Hades, when Odessa was our Heaven?
Babushka blamed Papa. He should have followed Stalin’s orders that day the ugly policeman banged on the door, forced the family into the parlor, and read aloud a document, droning like a bagpipe: “You, Joshua Rosengartner, are a capitalist and therefore the enemy of Stalin and the people of Odessa. You will sign this document and join the Communist Party.”
Anya hadn’t understood the gravity of what he said—in the name of Stalin—until he threatened to kneel Papa down in the snow and shoot him once through his skull. When Papa shook his head nyet, the policeman turned on his heels, crushed the paper in his fist, and clomped out the door. Mama and Babushka staggered from the room and refused Valentina’s tray of blini and chai; Papa and Dedushka cleared their throats and spit when they whispered. Instead of amen, Babushka said oy vey to the ceiling. Georgi drew his sword and patrolled the doors and windows while the women packed. Angry words filled the house, mostly Mama’s side of the arguments. “… Don’t do this … my German debut … Joshua, no one is listening … I am a world-class trained soprano … a lifetime of voice lessons … No. I will not hush … convert … I don’t know that God … Odessa is my home … stealing my life … Please join the Communists, Joshua … No? You won’t? Ever?… I hate you. You are a svolach.”
Papa-the-bastard vanished with his family like scarabs skittering under a rock, on a moonless night in three black cars, headlights off, wrapped in plaid winter coats and cashmere scarves. Mama whispered, Lebn vi Got in Odes dos goldene land—Do svidanya. We lived like God in Odessa, the golden land. Good-bye. The train chugged from the depot, gnashing at the rails. Mama cried like a widow. Her gloved fingers held Anya’s hand, squeezing harder and harder as the train picked up speed. Mama stuffed her hands into her pockets when Odessa was gone. Anya prayed, Send the train backward to my room and my friends. She was afraid to reach into the darkness for Mama, and feel nothing.
If it were possible to collect her fallen tears since the last night she slept in her trundle bed, she’d have dozens of buckets to pour on the parched lawn.
Copyright © 2011 by Andrea Alban