Being able to read Bessie's Pillow published by Strong Learning, Inc. was a joy. I have to be honest, though, I cried while reading the first paragraph and continued to cry throughout the book as it was written as if I was experiencing the events personally. It is a real look at a real life written in a real manner to make you feel as though you are the one going through it.
This book is about a young Jewish girl, Boshka, who left her family in Lithuania, to live in America, at the age of 18 in order to escape all of the persecution of the Jews. It starts with her telling what it was like to live in "the Pale" with her family. It is very raw, but well written. What I mean by "raw" is that it tells of the horrors that the Jewish people went through there: murder, rape, etc, but it was written in a modest way. The author, Linda Bress Silbert, word smiths the book so that you get the picture of what's happening without all of the gory details.
As Boshka is ready to board the train to leave her family, a neighbor hands her a pillow that the neighbor's son forgot when he went to America a few years earlier. She asks Boshka to find her son, Nathan, and deliver it to him. She agrees and gets on the train. Throughout her journeys to America, it turns out that the pillow, which is embroidered with the words, "May this pillow bring you peace", was the one thing that gave her peace. As she makes it to Ellis Island, her name is changed to Bessie and now we understand the title of the book.
This book follows Bessie's adventures in America from turning down a place to stay in her sister's house, to getting married, having and losing children, and taking over her husband's business when he died. This woman did it all!
Listen to her granddaughter (the author of this book) tell about Bessie in this video:
I used this book as a read aloud to our oldest son in 7th grade. I wasn't sure how he would like it as it wasn't his "usual" type of book that he reads (it doesn't have any dragons in it). He didn't know what to think of it at first - mostly because I cried starting in the first chapter. When I finished that first day's reading, he asked, "Mom, are you okay?" I was a blubbering fool who was placed in the life of this 18 year old girl leaving her family, forever.
Our son listened intently at what this young woman went through in order to get to America. I think that it was difficult for him to understand all that was going on because he has never had to deal with anything like that in his life, thank goodness. He learned to appreciate Bessie and her boldness to move forward in life and not to just settle with what others thought she should do. Bessie was not a typical "girly-girl" and that appealed to him.
He recognized quickly the difference between the main men in Bessie's life: her father, her brother-in-law, Lou, and Nathan. It was apparent that he was drawn more towards Lou and Nathan more than the brother-in-law. He recognized that you don't have to be a dictator in order to be a man. We had a good discussion when her brother-in-law and Lou were both introduced in the same chapter. He couldn't understand why Bessie's brother-in-law acted the way that he did and why Bessie's sister would put up with it.
Along with this book, the author has provided a study guide in order to dive more deeply into this book. The study guide includes a look into Language Arts, Social Studies, a Timeline of American History, a Glossary of Terms, as well as Additional Readings that go along with this book. This is a wonderful 16 page reference for the book. I especially enjoyed looking through the Timeline of American History because this places the main events of the story in with the rest of American history so the reader can understand what else was happening in the country around Bessie. I also appreciated the Glossary of Terms as it helps with some of those hard to understand words like: Shabbos, challah, and pogroms.
I'm glad that I decided to read it aloud to my son because there are some parts in it that I was uncomfortable with reading to him. Like I said earlier, the author did a good job in not giving all of the details, but there was still enough there to understand what was going on. There was a section in the beginning of the book about what persecution that the Jews were going through and this was hard for me to read to our son. He's never been around that sort of thing and I wasn't sure how he was going to react to it. There is also a section when Boshka is going through "dissinfection" and it talks about how all of the women were naked and had to be cleaned, thoroughly. I skipped over a little bit of it not wanting to give him many of the details. I felt like he didn't need any details other than knowing that they were cleaned so that they could get into the country. I didn't think that it was appropriate to go any further.
This is not a book that I would assign to my children to read alone. This book is a book that is written in a fairly easy reading level - 6th grade+, but I would only feel comfortable reading this with my children in order to use it as a discussion and be able to answer any questions they have as we go along.
I would greatly recommend Bessie's Pillow as it is a wonderful life story of a woman who lived through immigrating to America and thrived once she got here. It is a fantastic story about immigration!