1919 Ukraine — In a small trunk in the corner of an abandoned shed, a young woman huddles hiding from the Cossacks ravaging her shtetl, burning homes, and killing Jews. Shayna Rifkin, seventeen, loses everything. Desperate to find safety, she dreams of reaching America. Shayna rescues her four-year-old nephew and with her fiancé and his mother braves a perilous trek across Europe. Shayna’s courage and determination bind them together, weaving a strong fabric from their separate threads to make a family, a safe place from which to build a new life in a new country. This emotionally rich novel is steeped in the Yiddish culture of the shtetl and the Lower East Side of New York in the early twentieth century.
We meet Shayna Rifkin when she is a teenager in Obodiva, a shtetl in Ukraine. Shayna, who is newly engaged, sees her world destroyed by the Cossacks. However, her challenges are just beginning, as her life is threatened and uprooted on her journey to safety and freedom. She flees with her orphaned nephew, along with her future husband, Yussi, and his stalwart mother, Manya. Together and individually, they face what appear to be insurmountable obstacles. Shayna’s spirit is tested and at times even fractured, but the love of Yussi and his mother help provide resilience when there is little to grasp. Their journey through Belgium and eventually to America, in steerage, will give the reader an intimate look at the plight of immigrants in the early twentieth century. In America, they reunite with a successful long-lost brother, who runs sweatshops and proves to be another disappointment; the family love she sought to reclaim is shattered. Eventually, Shayna succeeds in creating a better life and a loving family. Through talent and hard work, life in America is no longer illusive.
This intimate glimpse into the immigrant experience is both heart-wrenching and eye-opening. The author has gone to great lengths to insure authenticity and make the reader feel connected to the protagonist throughout her journey. A wonderful, compelling, and sincere story of loss and discovery.
Help support the Jewish Book Council.