________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 2. . . .September 15, 2017


Miriam’s Secret.

Debby Waldman.
Victoria, BC: Orca, October, 2017.
199 pp., pbk., pdf & epub, $10.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-4598-1425-7 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-4598-1426-4 (pdf), ISBN 978-1-4598-1427-1 (epub).

Grades 3-8 / Ages 8-13.

Review by Ruth Latta.

***½ /4



Some greeted Zayde with 'Morning, Bill', and a tip of the hat. Some said something that sounded like, "It's Billy that's you."


"They said what?" Zayde asked.

"It's Billy that's you. Don't they know it's you?"

Zayde started laughing so hard he had to stop walking. When he finally found his voice again, he said, 'Oh, Miri, they didn't say, 'It's Billy that's you'. They said 'It's Billy the Jew.'"

Miriam frowned. "Why don't they just say hello?"

"That's how some people do say hello," Zayde explained.


"Star is the right name for you because you're pretty as a star," Miriam said. Settling onto a hay bale, she cuddled the kitten on her lap and leaned in to hear her whispery purrs.

"That's a stupid name. Stars aren't pretty. They're just lights in the sky."

Miriam leapt up. The kitten wriggled out of her hands.

"Who said that?" she demanded...

There, peering down at her, were the same brown eyes she had seen when she was here with Zayde. The eyes looked curious but not exactly friendly.


Miriam's Secret is an inspiring story populated by characters with a positive outlook on life. Miriam, 11-years-old and a city kid from Brooklyn, has just come to stay on her maternal grandparents' farm in upstate New York. The nearest passenger train service is in Utica, but freight trains run past the farm and startle Miriam on her first night there.

     Although Bubby and Zayde, her grandparents, are welcoming and include her in their activities, Miriam misses her schoolmates, her city neighbourhood and most of all, her parents. They are on a trip to "The Old Country" (Russia) to help her widowed uncle, the father of two infant sons, come to the United States.

     Outdoors with her grandmother, Miriam is surprised to see men rolling like barrels out of a passing box car. Transients, she learns, often drop off the trains on her grandparents' farm where Zayde hires them to help with the work. They sleep in a bunkhouse, eat with the family and some eventually move on.

     At noon, she notices that one of the seven farmhands at the table is younger than the rest, with dark skin, "like the porter she'd met on the train the day before." That afternoon, when Zayde takes Miriam to the barn to see some newborn kittens, she looks up to the hayloft and sees two brown eyes looking back at her. Her grandfather says it must be one of the hired men getting hay down for the cattle.

     Miriam continues to have uncomfortable experiences. To her disappointment, she learns that her parents won't be back to the United States by Passover. Instead of having seder with them and their Brooklyn friends, she and her grandparents seem destined to have a lonely little seder at the farm. On a trip to the village, she is startled to realize that, in this rural community, people are identified by their religion or ethnicity. (See quote at the beginning) When Zayde adds that the locals feel as if they own the place and want to keep track of everybody, Miriam asks if he would have felt that he owned his town if he'd stayed in the Old Country.

"Things were very different there," he said, his voice turning serious. "That's why we came here."

     On a subsequent visit to the kittens, Miriam discovers a girl her own age who has been living in the hay loft for months, subsisting on food her brother saves for her. Cissy and her brother, Joe, ran away from unkind relatives in Mississippi in the vague hope of contacting another relative somewhere in New York. Cissy hides for fear of being taken by the authorities to an orphanage; she becomes Miriam's secret. The girls bond over the kittens. When Cissy sings a song about "Elijah Rock comin' up Lord", Miriam realizes that this is the same prophet Elijah for whom her family will open the door as part of the Passover service. “Sometimes, seeing things through other people's eyes helps you to understand things in a new way," says Bubby, and this proves so. Readers who are not Jewish will learn a great deal about Passover in the scenes where Bubby and the girls cook and talk. The novel proceeds to an amazing seder that includes jazz musicians.

     In her “Author's Note”, Debby Waldman explains that, although Miriam's Secret is fiction, many of the details come from her family history. Her grandparents, the models for Bubby and Zayde, were known during the Depression years as people who would provide food for work. An African-American jazz band really did turn up at Waldman's grandparents' farm during a blizzard because "they couldn't reach their intended destination and no hotel would put them up. 'Go and See Billy the Jew', they were told. 'He'll give you a place to sleep.'"

     During the story, Waldman doesn't mention that the jazz band was denied shelter elsewhere. She notes that her mother's family experienced anti-Semitism in that place and time but concludes that the nickname given by the locals to her grandfather was "more benign" than "negative". Her willingness to take the high road and give the villagers the benefit of the doubt is remarkable.

     Miriam seems naive for an 11-year-old city kid, but it's possible that, growing up in a Jewish neighbourhood in Brooklyn, she has been isolated from anti-Semitism and racism. Some readers may find Miriam's Secret too subtle about the racial and religious discrimination and economic dislocation of the Depression, but all will enjoy this gentle novel which furthers goodwill and understanding.

Highly Recommended.

Ruth Latta's novel, Grace and the Secret Vault is about the impact of the Great War and the Winnipeg General Strike upon a Canadian family.

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