Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse (1991) is a coming-of-age story, this time dealing with a 12-year-old Russian immigrant traveling alone. But Rifka is not an ordinary traveler. She expects to do “everything” once she reaches America, but first, she has to get there. When sickness keeps her behind, she learns to survive on her own, hoping all the while it will work out. Rifka must overcome disease, forgive the Russians she encounters who would have persecuted her back in her home country, and also find her purpose in life as she travels to America.
Rifka tells her story by writing “letters” to her cousin back in Russia, written in the margins of a book of poetry since she had no other paper available. We see her maturity as she grows through her journey. I loved her qualms. Although she started her journey determined to “do everything” in America, as time passes, it becomes clear that life will never be easy. But Rifka is strong, and her determination to find peace in life is inspiring.
Rifka’s story resonates with me because I too have immigrants in my family. Although my ancestors were not Jewish, they too came through Ellis Island. What were they thinking as they traveled? My mother, for years a teacher of English as a Second Language students, often used this text (or an adaptation of it) with her new students. They, too, felt the universality of the feelings of hope in a new country, combined with frustration amid the struggles of a different culture.
Letters from Rifka is highly recommended. I look forward to reading more of Karen Hesse’s historical fiction. It is expertly crafted.