Title: Bessie’s Pillow
Author: Linda Bress Silbert
Major Themes: Immigrants, Jews, Russia
Synopsis: As a young woman, Bessie Markman traveled alone from Lithuania to New York and made a new life for herself.
We recently had the opportunity to review Bessie’s Pillow, a new book by Linda Bress Silbert, published by Strong Learning, Inc. I read the book to myself first, after a couple of people in an online forum mentioned some possible concerns with it, but decided that it would be fine to read aloud to my children. I’m glad I did! We really enjoyed this true story. One thing that made it even more meaningful to us is that we have a family living with us at the moment, and the wife came from Latvia; she was born in Lithuania, where Bessie came from! I was glad to be able to ask her how to pronounce a Russian word.
Boshka Markman was only 18 when her parents managed to save enough money to send her from their village of Glubokoye (Glue-bo-ko-yeh) in Lithuania, to New York City to live with her older sister. Life in Lithuania, the Pale of Settlement, was increasingly dangerous for the Jews, and Boshka’s parents didn’t want her hurt—or worse—in a pogrom. They also didn’t want her to be in danger as she traveled alone across the Atlantic Ocean, so they bought her a first-class ticket. As she was leaving, a woman gave her a beautifully-embroidered pillow, asking Boshka to give it to the woman’s son in New York.
Although Bessie, as she was known after her name was changed at Ellis Island, was able to find her sister in New York City without too much trouble, she was disappointed with what she found there—and very thankful for friends from Glubokoye who were happy to take her in. She was not willing to live off of their generosity for very long, however, and soon learned more about how most Jewish people in New York lived than she had ever wanted to know.
After living in New York City for about a year, Bessie finally brought herself to find the owner of the pillow in New Rochelle. What happened next? Well, let me just say that we’ve read so many books now that my boys can detect a budding romance pretty quickly! The book tells the story of Bessie’s married life, with its joys and tragedies and triumphs, for the next 20 or 30 years. World War I is described from her perspective, as well as the Spanish Influenza and the Great Depression. Something I particularly enjoyed was the mention of homeschooling her children during and after the Influenza. The book states that many people did that at the time, to protect their children from illness.
We greatly enjoyed Bessie’s Pillow. Esther commented that it has a unique perspective on immigration. Most of the stories that are written about European immigrants to America tell about people who traveled in steerage and lived in the tenements. Bessie was more upper-class, however, so the perspective is quite different. Another thing that was different about this book, from most, is that it is written in first-person, present-tense style. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book quite that way, but it worked well. You are really drawn into Bessie’s life. There are flashbacks here and there, which are clearly marked with italics. When I was reading aloud, I did make sure to mention that this was a flashback so no one got confused.
There is a website that goes with the book, www.bessiespillow.com, which contains a wealth of resources for expanding the study of Bessie’s life and times. You can find links on this website for other books to read, information about food, about the music and the news of the time, and photographs of Bessie’s family, her life, and the places she lived. We haven’t had time to explore this very much, but it looks like you could do a lot with it.
WARNING: The prologue mentions murder and rape. Chapter 2 does, as well. Chapter 3 describes how the women were forced to undress for a medical examination. Chapter 5 mentions that Jewish boys often maimed themselves so they would be unfit for military service. Chapter 10 has a veiled reference to prostitution. Chapter 15 includes a description of a kiss. None of these were extensive; it was easy to censor as I read aloud. I wouldn’t necessarily want a child younger than teenage to read the book on their own, however.
Listening Level—Ages 8 – 12, 10 – 12, Family Friendly
Reading Independently—Ages 12 – 15, 15 and Above, Adults