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Saturday, July 7, 2012

Rachel's Secret, written by Shelly Sanders. Second Story Press, 2012. $12.95 ages 12 and up

"Everyone I know is sure that a Jew killed Mikhail, but there's no proof - just rumors that are getting out of control. I'm afraid my father will never find the real killer because of the lies that are getting in the way of his investigation." He glanced at Rachel and stopped. Her face was twisted into a portrait of agony. Sergei took her arm and guided her to a more private spot behind a large fir tree."

This is a very powerful story...memorable in many details days after reading it. It's hard to imagine the suffering and terror felt by the Jewish people of Russia during the 1903 pogrom in Kishniev; but Shelly Sanders makes me feel as if I were standing on the streets, heart pounding and aware of the horror felt by all those persecuted. A family story from her grandmother, a survivor, is rife with the gripping reality of conditions at the time.

Rachel, Mikhail and Sergei skate together on the frozen river in Kishniev. The story opens with such a scene. While Rachel is a Jew living in the town's ghetto, the young men are Christians. Any relationship would be frowned upon by many. Mikhail's life has been touched by the tragedy of his parents' deaths and he lives with his grandparents. His place with them is a source of enmity for his uncle, his father's brother. Sergei is the son of the Kishniev's police chief. All of these details have great importance in the trajectory of the story.

Rachel and Mikhail are in the early stages of romance while Sergei watches from the sidelines, intrigued by Rachel's beauty and wit. He is too shy to show his true feelings. Following their skate, Rachel is on her way home when she remembers she has left her red shawl on the bench. Returning to the river she is witness to Mikhail's murder by his jealous uncle, a local policeman. Fearing for her family's safety, she says nothing. She knows that she will not be believed if she reports it; so she harbors her secret with a heavy heart for the loss of her dear friend.

When the murder is discovered, a newspaper report blames Jewish custom and incites a lingering hatred. People are outraged. Sergei makes contact with Rachel and tries to cheer her following their friend's death and also because of the evident local disdain for her religion and its tenets. As they grow closer, Rachel feels she can share her secret with him. Angry, he goes to his father with the information. His father refuses to do anything.
The mob violence that follows is heartbreaking and its results devastating to the community, to Rachel's family, and to its many Jewish citizens. Shelly Sanders creates characters with heart; some of whom are incited to mob violence through ignorance and prejudice. She lets us know that there are many good people among them who support and honor the religion of others, and who work to find peaceful solutions to differences in belief.

Each of the main characters is worthy of our respect. They all want to find their way in the world, independent of family and tradition. Rachel wants to be a writer; she sees no future in marriage and living the life that her mother has lived, despite its apparent contentment. Mikhail dreams of a university education, not following in his grandparents' footsteps in the tobacco industry. Sergei has no interest in being a policeman like his father before him. They all want more from life. Sadly, events beyond their control take precedence over the dreams for the future.


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