Our family just finished reading this story of a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant the other day as we snuggled under blankets dealing with our heat being out and one family member recovering from a surgery. It seemed rather apropos to read about the hardships - and blessings - of past-era immigrants while dealing with out own mini-trials. In fact, doing so gave an extra layer of meaning to us as we paused to chat about how "real life" goes and what kinds of ups and downs Bessie and her family experienced and how much more challenging the lives of the immigrants in the tenement houses she helped had been.
Bessie's Pillow proved to be a living book that folded much gentle learning, a portion of sorrow, a bit of humor, and a lot of "real life" into its 247 pages of historical fiction about an 18-year-old Jewish immigrant who came to America in 1906 to escape persecution and proved herself resilient, successful, and compassionate as she made a new life for herself. As the story begins, Boshka Markman (who later takes the Americanized name of Bessie) is entrusted with a pillow to pass onto a fellow immigrant already in America. The pillow contains the words "may this pillow bring you peace" on it, and, indeed, as Bessie's story continues, much peace is needed. Personal, national, and international trials in the early 20th century affect Bessie, sometimes threatening to steal all peace. However, stamina, resilience, and blessings come in good measure, too.
Told mostly in chronological order, with some brief flashbacks set off in italic typeface, Bessie's Pillow has short chapters and a a compelling storyline, which often kept me reading aloud longer to my children than I expected.
The softcover book also includes 20+ pages of printed Bessie's America information after the 247 page story. This section highlights:
- famous people
- food and recipes
- music and dancing
- parks and beaches
- influential Presidents during Bessie's lifetime
- social movements
- vaudeville and Yiddish theater
It is mirrored by a more extensive online version with links to audio clips, video clips, and so much more. One could easily get lost hopping bunny trails throughout Bessie's America online or could use it in a more organized fashion as a comprehensive jumping off point for a complete unit study or research paper.Indeed, between the well-told historical fiction story, printed Bessie's America, and online version, Strong Learning, Inc. has taken an outstanding living history book and turned it into a springboard for a full-on period history study.
Historical fiction lovers, Charlotte Mason-inspired families, unit-study aficionados, traditional learners, and more will likely appreciate what Bessie's Pillow has to offer. I know I, as an eclectic homeschooling mama with kids that love history and reading together, am delighted to have this book in our collection now. I've so enjoyed reading it to my children and hopping a few bunny trails, and we will likely revisit it down the road, too.
My Children's Takes
My youngest, at six, is younger than the audience Bessie's Pillow is intended for, but with older siblings, he has gotten used to listening in to more mature materials. In deference to his age, I did reword a few small bits in the book when reading it aloud, but, truly there was very little I could not read "as is" and plenty that my youngest learned and asked about. Among those things, he told me after finishing the book:
I learned about bah mitzvahs and the food Jewish people eat - kosher. I also learned Attleboro was once the jewelry capital. I wish there was more humor. I like humor.
Throughout our readings of the story, my youngest sometimes paused to ask me to explain what a word meant or what some historical or cultural detail was about. He also stopped us to exclaim when he realized Bessie's brother moved to a town our friend's live in and where we have visited a shrine (Attleboro).
As far as the humor comment goes: it is true. My youngest likes humor. What is also true is his ready giggles and belly laughs rang out during parts of our read together time with Bessie's Pillow. The story contained real life sorrow and real life laughable moments. He just wished for more of the latter.
My oldest learned some things, too.
I learned about the horrors of Russia and Germany around World War I and II. It was interesting that people were forced to fight in the front lines just because of their religion, and, it was horrible that they set the whole part of the city where the Jews lived on fire during the war, killing hundreds or thousands of Jews.
I thought it was awesome that during that time America was so far ahead of Lithuania. That was crazy. It was like Bessie walked from one century to another. Suddenly, there were all these things she did not recognize, like towering buildings and other modern inventions.
Before, I knew about modern immigrants, but not about this time in history. I thought Bessie was privileged compared to other immigrants. They were all starving to death and sick, and she was able to go shopping with friends, eat well, have tons of toys for her kids, have a truck and a car,... She was charitable. She gave toys and food to others and loaned money to people. Some immigrants, like the ones Bessie met on the boat, were mean. Others were hardworking.
My oldest tends to prefer stories with more real-time action, mystery, and adventure and less romance, skipped time portions, and real life drama than Bessie's Pillow includes, so he also had these critiques:
There were a lot things in this book, I did not like. Some things could not be changed, because they are just history, but I still do not like them. I thought it was silly for Bessie to loan money during the height of the stock market, because it was too risky. The kids should not have stuck his head through glass and got stuck - a really bad idea. I also think it is a bad idea to hit someone like Bessie's girl did. But, it is all real life, I guess.
Other things could be changed like not skipping so much time between chapters. Also, they should call things by their names, like, instead of saying "little black beads say "a rosary", because that's what it is.
Overall, though my oldest listened attentively each time we read Bessie's Pillow aloud and even was seen reading ahead at times, he honestly stated:
I would not recommend this story to some others, but my sister was crazy about it and my mom liked it, too. I didn't want to read it as often as we did, because it took up our time and I wanted to read some other books, too.
Despite my son's partially "negative" review of Bessie's Pillow, just the fact that he stayed sitting with the rest of us while we read this atypical-for him book, tells me the book has merit. He laughed aloud during parts, asked questions and made oral connections during other parts, and, on the whole, remained engaged. He also is right - his sister loved the story (which is yet another reason he could not give it more kudos, because, well, he's a boy, at that age, you know, the age when female protagonists are not as well-loved and anything little sister likes can become immediately suspect...)
As for my daughter, I think she would have listened to me read the entirety of Bessie's Pillow in one sitting if I would have. After reading a long stretch of the book as we finished it off, she had the following to say. (Warning: Some spoilers included):
I liked the story a lot. I had no idea that there was such things as the pogroms.
The story was a tiny bit violent and sad at times, but that was needed to make it realistic, because life is not just a big happy thing. It must have been hard for Bessie to lose two children, her husband, her mom and dad in a different country,... I felt bad for Lou, too...
I really liked when Bessie grabbed a broom and made her kids' uncle leave. It was also funny how one of boys got his head stuck in glass and when the food was on fire at a restaurant...
Bessie was a do-it-myself woman who didn't want to just sit around in rooms gossiping and cooking, so when her husband died, I liked that she was able to take over the business...
I like that there are pictures in the back of the story...
It was interesting to see that the immigrants came to America and, then, a little while later, there was the depression, and that the president signed a paper about limiting immigration. That was kind of sad, but it's life...
I really liked the book. I think kids who are a tiny bit older should read it - people who are not super sensitive...
When she says "a tiny bit older", she means than her little brother. When she says "not super sensitive", she is 100% spot-on. Although the author, Linda Bress Silbert (who is Bessie's granddaughter) writes in an easy-to-read, style without belaboring the violence and sorrow of the early 20th century, the fact remains that many diffucult things happened during this period.
War. Persecution. Disease. Poverty. All of these things are woven into Bessie's Pillow along with celebration, compassion, and resilience. If you're looking for a piece of historical fiction that tugs at your heartstrings, gives an honest, well-balanced picture of life in the early 20th century, and will etch a woman of character and her family into your memory, Bessie's Pillow is it! Also, as I already mentioned, if you'd like to go deeper -through bunny trails or formal research or unit studies, Bessie's America will help you do just that!