CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 12. . . . February 14, 2003
Simon rushed to open the door for Elijah. Smiling, he flung the door open. But as soon as he saw who stood thee, the smile froze on his face.
"Oy! Sarah the Weaver?"
Sarah breezed by Simon and joined Selma at the stove.
It is Passover, and the folk in the mythical town of Chelm are getting ready for Passover. Part of the ritual involves pouring a glass of wine and opening the door to welcome the arrival of the angel Elijah who will hopefully bestow good fortune upon the household. Rachel's mother, Selma, makes a chicken soup according to a traditionally vague recipe (a pinch of this, enough of that). Neighbours arrive and offer their suggestions to improve the soup. Selma hopes that the soup will please Elijah. At the same time, Rachel is arranging sticks in a vase, imagining they are the roses.
Does Elijah come? The level in the wine glass goes down, but Selma sees no benefit to her family. But Rachel's kindness to one of the neighbours has been repaid; the sticks turn into a rose.
This is Richard Ungar's second book about Rachel, a wise little girl in Chelm at the turn of the 20th century. In Rachel Captures the Moon, she shows the villagers how they can have the moon without restricting it. In Rachel's Gift, Rachel displays kindness beyond her years and is rewarded.
The pages are circled by ever-moving vibrant pink and orange illustrations reminiscent of French painter Marc Chagall. The perspective is curved, ladders are on angle. Even the shadows are coloured and flowing. The picture on the wall shows an ever-changing scene; in one montage, Rachel is reaching for the moon over a house. A tabby cat observes every scene. The human figure is not Ungar's strength, but the illustrations invite examination.
However, interesting illustrations are not enough to overcome weaknesses in Ungar's story. The tale begins with Selma's frustration over the soup recipe; neighbours drop in and add their two cents. The reader becomes involved with the preparation of the soup and presumes that the story will develop in the same way as a stone soup story does (recalling Aubrey Davis's Bone Button Borscht) - with people working together to produce a better product. Instead, Rachel's assistance to Samuel the pedlar is the determining factor in the tale.
That would be fine if Samuel were more of a presence in the story. Selma and her friends neither welcome nor reject him; he has no relationship with them in the tiny kitchen at all, which is unusual. Rachel's reward may be well deserved, but Selma, while she is loud and opinionated, is not presented as selfish or mean-spirited; rather she is always thinking of her family. We have no reason to dislike her or feel that her family's poverty should not be alleviated in some small way.
To be effective, Rachel's Gift needs be refocused so that the reader is not left wondering why certain elements, such as the letter from the aunt were included, or others, such as Samuel, were underdeveloped.
Recommended with reservations.
Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in the Louis Riel School Division in Winnipeg, MB.
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