CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 6 . . . . November 10, 2006
The emotional impact of a child's death is considered to be the worst a parent can experience. Special days that had formerly been times for celebration become events of sadness and avoidance. In Feast of Lights, Ellen S. Jaffe describes the struggle a young girl faces as her parents try to deal with the loss of their six-year-old son, Ben, from leukemia. Sarah feels as if she is caught between them as she tries to regain a sense of normalcy.
Jaffe sets the story in modern-day Toronto at the time of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights. The holiday commemorates the regaining of the Second Temple from the Greeks when one day's worth of consecrated oil burned for eight days until more could be obtained.
The vehicle for the miracle in this story is the family menorah, or Hanukkah candelabra, which Sarah polishes for the holiday. Just like miracle offered by the genie's lamp, Sarah's miracle is to be transported back in time every time she lights the candles.
There are eight chapters, one for each night of Hanukkah. In each chapter, Sarah discovers that she, too, is struggling over Ben's death. Everything seems to be a reminder. Sarah wants to carry on the traditions of the holiday which she hopes will help her parents come out of their mourning. But they are distracted, and her father is almost hostile to the idea of celebrating Sarah's favourite holiday.
Every night as she lights the candles, Sarah is drawn back to visit her great-great grandparents at different points in their lives, and she discovers how people lived in Poland and Ukraine at the turn of the 19th century. She encounters her namesake and learns that there are family members she had never known about, including a child who died from leukemia. She sees the hardships they experienced in the Old Country and in Canada, how they dealt with their travail and loss, and how they were able to move on.
The menorah was a gift from her great-grandmother Ruth, now a resident of a nursing home. Through the menorah and her relationship with her long-dead ancestors, Sarah comes to accept Ben's death. After Sarah, herself, has an accident, her parents are shocked out of their stupor.
Jaffe gives the reader a tour of contemporary Toronto and a reminder of its immigrant past. Sarah lives near Kensington Market where her family originally settled. She wanders through the streets there and sees that, among the modern boutiques and Asian groceries, there is a synagogue which was built at the time her relatives arrived. Jaffe adds a sense of veracity by sprinkling the text with Yiddish words that are defined in a useful glossary at the end of the book.
Sarah is a typical, secular, 21st century girl, with all the trappings of contemporary life and with friends of different colours, origins, religions. She wonders at how the world changed over time, and how lucky she is that her family came here, since those who remained behind perished in the Nazi Holocaust.
The theme of loss and the juxtaposition of the past and present will prove interesting to children, especially empathetic girls. The subtitle of this book is A Young Adult Novel, but the forced narrative and the artificial dialogue that explain absolutely everything make it more suited to pre- and young adolescents:
Sarah’s ancestors seem to accept her presence in their house too easily, never questioning her vague explanations about who she is.
A detail of history - the country named Czechoslovakia was only created in 1918. It would be more likely that great-great-grandmother Anna would refer to it as Ruthenia or Carpathia, the regions she would have known about, rather than by its modern name.
That being said, children who read this book will be well-informed about Hanukkah and the history of the first Jews who came to Canada and will identify with Sarah's distress.
Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.