Sunday, April 1, 2012

Rachel's Secret by Shelly Sanders

Rachel's Secret takes readers on a journey inside the 1903 pogrom of Kishinev, Russia. The book was inspired by the experiences author Shelly Sander's grandmother endured as a survivor of a pogrom in Russia. Many of the characters in the book are real people who lived through the events Sanders describes.

The novel's three main characters, Rachel Paskar, Mikhail Rybachenko, Sergei Khanzhenkov are friends drawn into horrific events beyond their control. Rachel is a fifteen year old Jewish girl who lives in the Jewish ghetto of Kishinev. Her friends, Mikhail and Sergei are Christians. Mikhail's parents died many years ago in an accident and he lives with his grandfather. Sergei lives with his family and his father is the police chief of Kishinev.

The novel opens with a forbidden romance blossoming between Rachel and Mikhail. Like Mikhail, Sergei is also attracted to the beautiful and intelligent Rachel, but his shyness prevents him from approaching her in the way that Mikhail does. After the three young people skate one evening on the River Byk, Mikhail is accosted by his drunken uncle, a policeman, who is angry over a family matter. The uncle savagely murders Mikhail - a crime Rachel witnesses when she returns to the river to retrieve her shawl.

When news of Mikhail's murder spreads, the Russian community begins spreading the lie that Mikhail was the victim of a blood libel. Fed by anti-Jewish propaganda from the local newspaper, racial hatred ignites and seethes in the town of Kishinev. People have already been blaming the Jews for many things as the area has a history of prejudice against them.

Rachel is devastated by what she has seen but feels she has no recourse to justice. She is burdened by the murder of her friend; there is no one to whom she can tell what she has seen. She cannot go to the local police because the murderer was a policeman, and because she is also a Jew, she knows her story will never be believed by the authorities. Instead such an action might bring deadly harm to her father and her family. So she keeps her secret.

With Mikhail now gone, Sergei finds the courage to approach Rachel and to try to mitigate some of the harm directed towards her and her family. Unlike his fellow Christians, Sergei is struggling with how his friends, family and the Christian community treat their Jewish neighbours. As they begin to develop a friendship, Rachel finally confides in him about Mikhail's murder. Sergei tries to tell his father in the hope that the real culprits will be arrested and the Jewish community exonerated, but his father refuses to act until he hears from the Governor.

Nevertheless, the damage has already been done. Violence and hatred are unleashed against the Jewish community in Kishinev in the form of destroyed homes and businesses and the massacre of fifty one innocent people. Rachel must come to terms with the losses she suffers and Sergei must deal with the part his own father had in the violence against their Jewish neighbours.

Shelly Sanders has written a balanced fictional story based on the horrifying events of 1903. The Jewish folk are shown as being peaceful and integrating as much as they are allowed into Russian society. Through the characters of Sergei, and some of the minor characters such as Father Petrov, Sanders shows that not all Russian Christians were so prejudiced towards the Jewish people. This novel also effectively demonstrates how people who are generally good can, through misunderstanding, ignorance and fear come to hate others who are not like themselves.

The three main characters are well developed even though one of them, Mikhail, has only a minor part in the story. Rachel is strong, sensible heroine who like all young people wishes for a better future. The relationship between Rachel and her father is tender and caring. Sergei is open minded and the author uses him to demonstrate that learning about others who are different can help us to view people in a new way. Sergei shows compassion towards the victims and his care towards a young orphan is especially touching.

All three young people experience a source of conflict with their parents. Their expectations are different from what their parents or society have for them. Sergei doesn't want to be a police officer but instead wishes to travel. Mikhail also wishes to leave Kishinev to attend university rather than take over the family's tobacco business. And Rachel doesn't wish to marry but instead wants to become a writer.

Rachel's Secret is further proof that Canadian authors are producing well written, interesting novels for young adults. Readers will get a real sense of what life was like in Russia at the turn of the last century. One part of the book I very much liked was the explanation of the Passover Seder. Even though I am Catholic, my family has done a Seder supper on Holy Thursday. We do this because elements of our faith, especially the Catholic Mass have taken many rituals from the Jewish faith and incorporated them into the new faith. So it was interesting to read the explanation of this supper.

My one minor complaint is the cover of the book which is more suited to an adult novel and really isn't relevant to the story. Otherwise, a great novel for Grade 7 and up students.

Book Details:
Rachel's Secret by Shelly Sanders
Toronto: Second Story Press 2012
245 pp.

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