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Letters from Rifka Hardcover – July 15, 1992

127 customer reviews

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Hardcover, July 15, 1992
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Twelve-year-old Rifka's journey from a Jewish community in the Ukraine to Ellis Island is anything but smooth sailing. Modeled on the author's great-aunt, Rifka surmounts one obstacle after another in this riveting novel. First she outwits a band of Russian soldiers, enabling her family to escape to Poland. There the family is struck with typhus. Everyone recovers, but Rifka catches ringworm on the next stage of the journey--and is denied passage to America ("If the child arrives . . . with this disease," explains the steamship's doctor, "the Americans will turn her around and send her right back to Poland"). Rifka's family must leave without her, and she is billeted in Belgium for an agreeable if lengthy recovery. Further trials, including a deadly storm at sea and a quarantine, do not faze this resourceful girl. Told in the form of "letters" written by Rifka in the margins of a volume of Pushkin's verse and addressed to a Russian relative, Hesse's vivacious tale colorfully and convincingly refreshes the immigrant experience. Ages 9-12.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From School Library Journal

Grade 4-8-- In 1919, Rifka's family flees from the persecution inflicted upon them as Jews in Russia for what they hope will be a better life in America. However, the steamship company refuses to allow 12-year-old Rifka passage because she has ringworm. After more than six months of treatment in Antwerp, she is finally cured and nearly reunited with her family, only to be detained at Ellis Island. Officials there feel she could become a burden to society because her disease has left her bald; without hair she is considered less attractive and therefore may never get married. Ultimately, Rifka and a young peasant boy, who is also in danger of being refused entry, help each other gain admittance to the country of their dreams. The story is told through her letters to her Russian cousin and squeezed onto the blank pages of a book of Aleksandr Pushkin's poetry; appropriate quotes from the poet precede and presage the events described in the letters, which detail the embarrassment of a medical examination by a drunken and prying doctor; battles with typhus, hunger and loneliness; and a disastrous ocean crossing. Countering the misery and uncertainty are the main character's courage, determination, and sense of hope as well as the happy ending. Based largely on the memories of the author's great-aunt, this historical novel has a plot, characters, and style that will make it an often-requested choice from young readers. A vivid, memorable, and involving reading experience, in spite of the somewhat morose and bleak cover.
- Ellen G. Fader, Westport Public Library, CT
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Age Range: 8 - 12 years
  • Grade Level: 4 - 7
  • Lexile Measure: 660L (What's this?)
  • Hardcover: 148 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR); 1st edition (July 15, 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805019642
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805019643
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.7 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (127 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,909,774 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By F. Orion Pozo on November 13, 2004
Format: Paperback
I started reading this book because it won an impressive number of awards:

National Jewish Book Award

International reading Association Children's Book Award

Sydney Taylor Book Award

American Library Association Notable Book

School Library journal Best Book of the Year

Horn Book Outstanding Book of the Year, and

Booklist Editor's Choice.

However once I started reading it, I was taken with the simple and compelling story.

The book consists of a series of letters written by 12 year old Rifka to her cousin in Russia. They start when in 1919, to avoid persecution, Rifka and her parents and two older brothers have to suddenly leave Russia in the middle of the night with just a small backpack and the clothes on her back. One of these few possessions is a book of Pushkin's poetry given to her by her cousin Tovah. Their destination is the United States where two of her brothers already live.

To calm her fears and give her something to do during the lonely hours of travel, Rifka starts to write letters to Tovah in the blank spaces in the book. The story evolves through these letters which Rifka knows she will not be able to mail until she reaches the US. In the book, each letter is preceded by a quote from a Pushkin poem.

Rifka's trip is not easy. She gets separated from her family and it takes over a year before she learns if she will be reunited with them. At a time when Jewish children are normally surrounded with family celebrating their coming of age, Rifka is alone and in charge of her own destiny.

The book excels in character development, historic accuracy, and plot. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in immigration stories, Jewish history, or young women's literature.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 26, 2000
Format: Paperback
This is one of my favorite books. One of the reasons that I like it so much is because you can acually imagine yourself as Rifka. You can feel the way that she does and you just want to read on and on and on. This book tells you about how the Russians treated the Jews. This book is so exciting clear until the end. It doesn't all of a sudden stop either, like some other books I've read.I would definitely reccommend this book to anyone.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Colleen McMahon VINE VOICE on August 8, 2006
Format: Paperback
Written as a series of letters from Rifka to a cousin back in Russia, this book tells the story of a Jewish girl's tortured path of emigrating to the US. Rifka and her family leave Russia in 1919 after her brothers flee from the Russian army, where Jewish draftees are abused and often killed. Rifka is the only girl and is a key part of their escape, and then must call on even more resources when illness leads to her being left behind in Poland, having to follow on her own after she recovers.

The letter format made this a quick and easy read and very inspiring too, especially after the words from the author reveal that the story is based on the true story of what one of her relatives endured in emigrating to America. It's a great read for 9-13 year olds interested in immigration and history, and especially for girls as it portrays an independent and resourceful heroine who is able to first help her whole family escape from Russia and then travel on her own the majority of the way to the United States. Not an easily forgotten story, even for this adult reader.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful A Kid's Review on January 5, 2001
Format: Paperback
Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse is an amazing epic of a young girl's journey form Russia during the First World War. Rifka is a young Jewish girl whose family is forced to flee to America. Because Rifka does not look Jewish, she is the decoy of her family. Rifka shows amazing courage throughout everything and comes through for her family but her family does not come through for her. Complications arise and Rifka is forced to face a new land. She puts on a brave face to the world but confides her secrets and fears to you through letters to her cousin, Tovah. I recommend this book to you because it was well written as well as exciting. The author paints vivid pictures in your mind. You really feel as if you have gotten to know the compassionate and brave person that Rifka is. Rifka's story is really one to remember and Karen Hesse tells the story wonderfully. In the beginning, when Rifka must distract the anti-Semitic soldiers while her family boards the train to Poland, The guards become suspicious and Rifka becomes frantic. You really feel the tenseness in the air. The author makes you relive the adventures that Rifka writes of. There are many more exciting adventures such as this one. I could not put the book down when complications arose at Ellis Island. This is an exciting and compelling story of the courage of a young girl and the faith she had in herself and Hesse tells the story beautifully. People of a religion other than Judaism may not be interested in a book about a Jewish family, but the book is well written portrait of anti-Semitism in the early 1920's. It is an important topic for people of all faiths to learn about. The hate expressed towards Jews at that time was nothing to ignore. If people are educated on this subject, then history will not repeat itself. In a way you are learning, but you are learning in a fun way. And anyway, the story is not about Rifka's religion; it's about the risks he must take because of it. The book is wonderful and I loved it.
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