Monday, July 8, 2013

The Memory Coat

The Memory Coatis the story of a Russian Jewish family's trip from Tsarist Russia through Ellis Island. The story is beautifully told and the illustrations help the reader understand more of the historical context.

I was fortunate to hear one of my Grandmother's tell her story about going through Ellis Island. Her stories have stayed with me all these years because she realized there were no guarantees even when you did make it as far as the island. Many children today don't have access to their family history to hear these stories. This story is a window into that world.

The story begins in Russia as the Tsar is beginning a round of programs against the Jews in Russia. The story focuses on Rachel and her cousin Grisha who has come to live with the family after his family died in an epidemic. The two are close. Rachel tells stories and Grisha illustrates them entertaining each other for hours. A year after his parents death, Grisha still grieves for his family and clings to the coat his mother made him despite their offers of a new one.

When the family decides to relocate to America, they sell their belongings to raise the money for the trip. They are concerned that even with enough money, they could be turned away at Ellis Island during the inspections. Going back to Russia during the pogroms could be a death sentence. Despite their encouragement to improve his looks for the inspectors, Grisha refuses to surrender his coat.

The family survives the journey to America and while waiting for their inspections, Grisha falls and cuts his eye. This could be a devastating blow to the family. Eye disease was one of the reasons people were turned away. The family's challenge and solution to the problem provide an insight to the issues many families faced on Ellis Island.

While this is a picture book, it is also a great book to use with children of all ages to discuss immigration at the time. The story is compelling. Younger children will appreciate the story as written. Older children can probe the themes and issues in the book far deeper than younger children who will not understand all the historical issues presented in the book.

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