by Adele Geras

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At the dawn of the twentieth century, Mina, Daniel, Yasha, and Rachel are just a few of the many people leaving their countries for America. They have great hopes for their new lives, but before they can achieve their dreams, they must survive the long and difficult voyage across the sea.

As passengers in an overcrowded steerage compartment, they must endure


At the dawn of the twentieth century, Mina, Daniel, Yasha, and Rachel are just a few of the many people leaving their countries for America. They have great hopes for their new lives, but before they can achieve their dreams, they must survive the long and difficult voyage across the sea.

As passengers in an overcrowded steerage compartment, they must endure hunger, thirst, and even brushes with death. And as they struggle to hold on to their hopes for a better future, they find that even under such harsh conditions, friendship and love can flourish.
Includes a reader's guide.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Give[s] an effective picture of the hardships of steerage passengers and of a range of attitudes, memories, biases, fears, and hopes they feel as they draw nearer to the country in which they are to establish new lives."--The Bulletin

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
4.50(w) x 7.00(h) x (d)
Age Range:
12 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
They had brought all their treasures with them: silver candlesticks, tablecloths embroidered in the yellow lamplight on long winter evenings, books bound in leather, jewelry if they had any, feather pillows, blankets, everything they could cram into their bundles and suitcases. Scuffed and battered and dirty, these were, and if they survived the voyage, some of them, it would be a miracle.

Mina had brought paper, as much of it as she could fit into the baggage. It slipped in comfortably between sheets and clothes and along the sides of the case. Old school books of Eli’s, only partly used, scraps torn from the bottom of letters, calendars from long ago, anything. Anything that she could draw on. She was drawing now, leaning on the suitcase. The paper had creases across it from being folded and stuck inside her boot. It wasn’t very clean, either, but dirt was something Mina had quickly become used to on this journey, because it was everywhere and there was nothing you could do about it, although some tried.

Mina sketched in Golda’s face, as she leaned over and spoke to Rachel. Thick hair the color of chestnuts curled from beneath a hat of shiny blue velveteen, and her gloves were still quite clean. She had pink cheeks, and shiny, pointed leather boots, only a little cracked. She sat on a cardboard suitcase, cradling a tiny baby in her arms, and leaning on a huge bundle of sheets and blankets as though it were a plump sofa strewn with satin cushions. Mina was almost tempted to draw in a table and an oil lamp at her side. Rachel sat very still, her arms around her knees. A scarf hid her fair hair. She was looking down. Mina imagined her standing in a wide field, green behind her as far as the eye could see, no trees, no wind, silence. What was she thinking? Maybe if Golda ever stopped talking (about her husband, mainly, waiting for her in America, and about how she would decorate this room and that room, and how, when she had the money one day, she would dress herself and the baby), Rachel would say something. Mina knew, from Rachel’s clear eyes, from the smile that seemed somehow just ready to be smiled, waiting in the upturned corners of her wide mouth, that what she said would be worth waiting for. Golda and Rachel were grown-up. Only three or four years older than me, thought Mina, and already women. Will I know so much when I am seventeen or eighteen, about dress lengths and fashions and furniture? Do I really want to? Mina drew in the baby’s tiny nose. How can a nose be so small, she wondered. And fingers moving like pink sea creatures. This pencil isn’t fine enough. She stopped drawing and listened. Golda said, “You must put all that behind you now. How can you live in the past? You’re only seventeen. It’s a hard thing to say, Rachel, but I have to say it. It was a tragedy, and God preserve us all from such things, but to hide behind it like a wall, never to look, or think of finding someone else, a fine girl like you. It’s a sin.”

(What was a tragedy, Mina asked herself. No wonder Rachel was silent.)

“I have to look after my father,” said Rachel calmly. “Without my mother, who has he got?”
Golda snorted. “He is, forgive me, a grown man. Perhaps he can look after himself a little, too. And grandchildren? Won’t he want grandchildren?”

“I’m only seventeen,” Rachel said. “Nearly eighteen.”

“Is seventeen so young? Look at me. Only nineteen, and I feel like an old woman sometimes, believe me. My baby is a month old already. Look at that girl over there. She can’t be any older than you, and her baby will probably be born on the ship, poor thing. That I don’t envy her, I can tell you, but still, there she is . . .” Rachel opened her mouth, but Golda did not pause for a moment. Mina stopped listening, and looked at the dazed, vacant eyes and huge, round stomach of the pregnant woman. She seemed to be traveling alone. Or maybe not. There was someone now, taking her arm, taking her to sit somewhere. An old man. The girl followed him as if in a dream, not smiling. Soon she was swallowed up in the crowd and Mina lost sight of her. She looked at the open door of the huge shed. Just above the dark triangular shapes of the roofs outside, you could see a small, pale gray rectangle of sky, the first light of a November morning. Voices made a river of sound: questions and cries and sighs and the thin whimpering of children who had not eaten but were too exhausted to shout swirled like water all around her.

Her mother’s shrieks (had her heart been torn from her body, or what?) sliced through other noises like great, silver scissors, and Mina felt her body stiffen, as Hannah pushed through the crowd, and sank to her knees.

“Mama, what is it? What’s the matter? Please, Mama, stop shrieking like that. Stop. It doesn’t help. Calm down. Tell me. Please tell me.”

Hannah Isaacs put both hands over her trembling mouth. Strands of graying hair fell over her forehead. Her shawl had been dragged along the floor.

“I can’t find Eli.”

“Oh, Mama, how could you lose him now? Where did you see him last? We’re nearly ready to go, why didn’t you . . .” The words faded from Mina’s lips as she fought down her impatience. I mustn’t blame her, she thought, she’s upset. She’s tired. But it’s not fair. I have to do everything. I have to look after Eli the whole time, or this is what happens. I’m like the mother and she’s like the daughter, and it’s not fair. I’m only fourteen. Why should I have to worry all the time? And Eli . . . Where is he? Mina folded the paper and tucked it into her boot with the pencil.

“I’ll find him, Mama, don’t worry. Stay here. I’ll find him. Don’t move from here. I’ll come back.”

“But if they call us? To check documents, or tickets, or money?”
Mina shouted, “I don’t care if an archangel calls you to the Seat of Judgment, just don’t move from here! How do you expect me to find you again if you move around? Have you seen what’s going on here? Look at the people: shoved together like cows. Hundreds. Maybe more. Just don’t move. And don’t cry. I’ll find him. Really, Mama, I’ll find him. I’m going now.” Rachel put an arm round Hannah’s shoulders.

“Don’t worry, Mina,” she said. “We’ll take care of her.”

Mina nodded, and turned, and began to elbow her way through the mass of bodies.

“Eli!” she shouted, “Eli, where are you? It’s Mina. Eli, where are you?” She looked into the faces of children: This one had a blue jacket, that one had thin legs just like her brother’s, but they were strangers and they looked at Mina with blank eyes, unresisting even when she pulled at their shoulders. They were used to being shouted at and pushed, driven from this train to that hall, and finally to the shed on the dockside. Nothing could startle them.

But where is he? He must be here somewhere, thought Mina. And then: What if I can’t find him? What if he’s wandered out of the shed, fallen into the water, drowned . . .

“Eli,” she shouted. “Eli, where are you?” She stumbled over bundles and baskets, suitcases and bags, bumping into brown backs and gray legs, and tripping over small children. For an eternity it seemed, she pushed and ran and shouted Eli’s name. Her own voice sounded cracked and hoarse in her ears, and she heard her mother’s wailing as clearly as though there were complete silence all around.

“Hey! Hey, you! Carrot Top, hey! Ginger!” She’s shouting at me, thought Mina, and for a moment rage made her forget her brother, and she turned toward the voice, ready to scream at whoever it was, hit them if necessary.

“Is this brat the one you’re looking for?”

“Eli! Oh, thank God. Where have you been? Why did you leave Mama? Didn’t I tell you and tell you?” She pulled Eli roughly to her side, and put an arm round him, tight, tight, to keep him safe.

The woman who had found her and brought Eli back had a mean, complaining mouth with too few teeth. Her son stood beside her, an ugly, heavy child with pale eyes.

“I’m very grateful to you for finding him and looking after him,” Mina said, and added inwardly: and I’ll even forgive the remarks about my hair. The woman sniffed. “As if I hadn’t enough to worry about. As if they don’t make things difficult enough. And who could get a word out of him? He’ll be nothing but a burden to you, let me tell you. Didn’t you know there’s a rule? They don’t let idiots, mental defectives into America.”

Copyright © 1983, 1999 by Adèle Geras

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Meet the Author

Adèle Geras is the celebrated author of many books for all ages, including Troy and Ithaka. She lives in Manchester, England.

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