I was raised in an interfaith household, and I read a lot of books about young Jewish girls when I was growing up. There was Judy Blume’s Sally and Margaret, Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, and the All-of-a-Kind Family, of course, but there was also the lesser-known Rachel Bloom and Sashie from The Night Journey.
The Night Journey is a simple story–Rachel is 13 years old, growing up in Minnesota with her parents and her great-grandmother, Nana Sashie, who lives with them. Sashie tells the story of her childhood and her family’s escape from Russia to Rachel, and her story is intercut with Rachel’s more contemporary one.
Really, though, Rachel’s story is just there to provide a contrast to Sashie’s. Sashie and her family escaped Russia when she was 9 years old, in the early 1900s. Her father had been called up to serve in the tsar’s army, but meanwhile the tsar’s soldiers were murdering entire Jewish villages. Sashie’s family plots a daring escape, complete with Purim costumes, and make their way to freedom.
As a child, I liked the adventure story, and I liked the humor throughout. I liked both Rachel and Sashie, especially Sashie who just a total badass. As an adult, this book has taken on whole new layers of meaning. For one thing, reading about tyrants in 2017 is a lot different than reading about them when I was a kid. Here’s a passage where Rachel’s father talks about Tsar Nicholas II and the persecution of the Jews:
“The Russian tsar at the time, Nicholas II, was a weak-minded boob. He was probably a very nice guy socially. That’s the creepy thing about all these types. But the country was wracked with problems–economic, social, whatever. . . Set up a scapegoat and the other people, the majority, will temporarily stop blaming the government and vent their anger on something else, some imaginary evil. It’s been done time and time again in history.”
I mean. Is that not a bit eerie to read right now? (But how great is the phrase, “weak-minded boob”? Stealing that one.) So there’s a layer of fear in reading this that wasn’t there when I was a kid, and all the tyrants (at least as far as I knew) had been vanquished and were safely confined to the past.
A second layer was one I’d known about as a kid, though I’d never really thought about it, and that was that Sashie’s story is also the story of my own family. My paternal great-grandfathers left Russia to escape the tsar’s army, just like Sashie’s father did. They came here, the way everyone came here, because America was the place to go when you were different. I wonder if that will continue to be true in our lifetimes.
The third layer, the most wrenching, is the story of the “haunted” man, Wolf, who helps Sashie’s family escape. I think when I read this as a kid I didn’t understand his story–it went over my head. Reading it this time was like a punch in the gut. I hate to give it away but Wolf’s story is one of the saddest things I’ve ever read. And Kathryn Lasky tells it in three words. It’s incredible.
It’s hard for me to say whether others would like this book. I have such fond memories of The Night Journey that colored my impression of it this time around. But I thought it was wonderful. I’m so glad I reread it.