From School Library Journal
Grade 8 Up–In 1934, teenaged Jessie lives in a small upstate New York town where her father is the warden in the state prison. Her mother is a bit of a social climber, while her father has allowed himself to become overly friendly with a prisoner, Slater, a young Southerner with a heartbreaking background and a keen musical talent. Jessie is pleasantly surprised when the daughter of the German professor who has moved into the neighborhood makes direct appeals for friendship. So unfolds the first section of this deceptively straightforward but sophisticated and engrossing novel. Jessie's friendship with Elisa is interrupted when the Stadlers abruptly return to Germany, an event that happens at the same time that Slater is killed in a situation that makes it appear that he murdered a local man. Jessie and Elisa correspond during the next few years, their letters–as well as those from their acquaintances–making up the latter portion of the novel. Years later, in 1946, Jessie learns what really happened to Elisa. Kerr weaves an authentic story in which characters can know only so much at any given moment of their lives, and actually misunderstand much of what they think they know. The period and the place are re-created with excellent detail. Kerr doesn't have to make Jessie pronounce the big questions because she does such a thorough job of showing that they should be every reader's questions: what is really going on, both under our noses and inside the lives of people we care about but cannot know completely?–Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA
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*Starred Review* Gr. 9-12. From the award-winning Gentlehands (1978), in which a teen discovers that his beloved grandfather was a Nazi, to Slap Your Sides (2001), about a teen struggling with his pacifist convictions, Kerr's historical fiction moves beyond simplistic divisions of friends and enemies. Her latest haunting novel, set in a small town in upstate New York during the Depression, is told from the perspective of teen characters and explores complex relationships--this time between Germans and Americans, Jews and gentiles. Fourteen-year-old Jessica, the daughter of the local prison's benevolent chief, becomes friends with new neighbor and classmate, Elisa, who is from Germany. While Jessica's mother is glad the newcomers are not Jews, who would bring down property values, Elisa's elitist mother won't even mix with the locals. Interwoven with Jessica's immediate, first-person narrative are stories of a young wrongfully convicted prisoner, a rich businessman bankrupted by the Depression, and an aristocratic, assimilated Jewish family that learns some shocking news. When Elisa returns to Germany, at first her letters are warm, but then they change. It's hard not to wonder if she has joined the Hitler Youth. Although there is a lot going on, secrets, intimate and political, drive the plot, expanding the warm friendship and coming-of-age story to reveal big issues of racism, class, and patriotism. Hazel Rochman
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