Grades 6 - 9 / Ages 11 - 14.
"What did you get for Christmas, Mollie?" Betty shouts through the cold moist air floating from her mouth in a lingering, puffy cloud.
THAT question again. My heart sinks.
"I didn't get anything," I answer in a voice meant to curry sympathy and at the same time to ward off further questions.
"Remember? I explained this last year. We don't believe in Jesus. Don't you remember?" I can't stand the thought of reviewing it again. Why are some differences so difficult to grasp?
THIS COMING-OF-AGE novel by Sharon Kirsh takes place in the sixties, the setting a small coastal city one assumes is Halifax (due to the descriptions of the ice-free harbour, the small Jewish community, and the city's two synagogues, one Orthodox and one Conservative.)
The story's main character, Mollie, is forced to examine what it means to be Jewish. A friend announces that Mollie, unlike herself, is lucky because she doesn't "look very Jewish," and this brings Mollie to consider, for the first time it seems, how different she is from most people in her community. She also realizes that many associate being different with being strange. But it's a different event that really forces Mollie to reexamine the cultural differences that exist around her: Mollie attends a youth group meeting at the synagogue where they show a film about the Holocaust.
Apparently Mollie has been sheltered from knowledge of the horrors associated with the Second World War. When she learns that millions of Jews were killed, she reacts with shock and disbelief. Her family provides only a few words of comfort, and Mollie is left feeling alone, confused, and alienated. And just when Mollie needs support and reassurance, her best friend Naomi has suddenly become preoccupied with events in her own life and has neither time nor words of consolation. Mollie does have the support of another friend, Elizabeth Ann (Mollie's "link to the Christian world"), who insists that though there are cultural differences, those differences will never affect their friendship. But other neighbourhood children think differently, and plague Mollie's family with anti-Semitic name-calling and acts of vandalism.
Kirsh's novel is occasionally too wordy for a young adult audience, and not written in an adolescent vernacular. And Mollie's naivete is sometimes unbelievable. At times she appears childlike and unaware of what goes on around her; at others she seems mature beyond her years. But that may just be a symptom of growing up -- Mollie herself admits that she sometimes feels "like a stranger" in her own body, one day feeling all grown up, and the next acting like an innocent child.
Despite some flaws, Fitting In does a good job of examining the true meaning of friendship and the sensitive issues surrounding cultural and religious tolerance -- important themes for young people growing up in Canada's cultural mosaic to consider. I applaud Sharon Kirsh for bringing these difficult issues to light.
Sara Brodie presently works for Dalhousie University Libraries in Halifax. She has recently returned from New York where she worked for the Brooklyn Public Library.
Fitting In was reviewed by classes across Canada as part of the Collaborative Book Review Project. You can read the students' reviews at the Collaborative Book Review Project site.
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