It’s not every day that you come across a Canadian middle-grade novel that is set five months after 9/11 and gives insight into the Jewish pogroms of the early 20th century and the Holocaust while centring on the trials and tribulations of a junior-high musical production of Fiddler on the Roof. In any other hands, Broken Strings would likely be a mess. But this is a collaboration between two celebrated kidlit veterans and the result is an absolute wonder. Eric Walters, who’s written more than 100 books for young people, knows his way around an exciting story, and Kathy Kacer, who has published over 20 children’s novels and non-fiction books about the Second World War and the Holocaust, provides a gravitas and historical grounding for this contemporary tale.
The book opens with a familiar scene: students rush to the hallway where the drama teacher has posted the cast list for the school play. There are plenty of cheers and tears with the protagonist Shirli Berman firmly in the latter camp. One of the best singers and actors in her New Jersey school, Shirli’s been given the role of Golde, the “frumpy Jewish mother.” While it’s a lead, it doesn’t have a solo and is not the part Shirli wants.
In an attempt to connect with her character, Shirli goes to her zayde’s house (whose mother, like the family in Fiddler on the Roof, lived through the Jewish pogroms). There she finds a violin and a poster of Zayde’s family, all of whom are holding musical instruments. This discovery leads to an argument. Shirli doesn’t understand why Zayde hasn’t mentioned his past as a musician and why he’s never shown an interest in Shirli’s artistic side. The heated conversation between grandparent and grandchild – who clearly adore each other and have only ever shared tender moments – is unnerving and emotional. It starts the novel off with an palpable tension and signals to the reader that the authors will definitely be taking risks.
While that storyline simmers, with Zayde making slow progress opening up to Shirli about his past, family, and how his experience in a concentration camp during the Holocaust destroyed his passion for music, the much less serious theatre storyline buzzes along. Shirli is jealous of the girl who got the best role, starts to fall for the boy playing her husband, and navigates plenty of “the show must go on” drama. All the while, we see students, parents, communities, and institutions struggling with the immediate effects of the recent terrorist attack: “In the first months following 9/11 some people said we shouldn’t have a production at all this year,” says Shirli. “I wasn’t sure if they thought it was disrespectful or because they didn’t think large groups of kids should be together in the same place – like we made too good a target.”
Walters and Kacer keep all these elements moving and intertwining, with Zayde as a through line. He’s a multi-faceted and irresistible character, full of secrets, talent, and wisdom, not to mention humour and unpredictability: “My grandfather always said what was on his mind – good or bad. My father said that his father sometimes lacked a ‘filter.’” Zayde not only shares what he knows about his parents’ experience during the pogroms but connects the themes in Fiddler on the Roof to the post-9/11 psyche. “The people you are playing,” he says, “they felt the same way you felt [on Sept. 11]. Their world had been turned upside down. They were uncertain, scared for their lives and for the lives of their children, for their future.”
In lighter moments, Zayde bonds with Shirli’s crush over a mutual love of professional wrestling, especially Stone Cold Steve Austin (it’s 2002, after all). But the grandfather’s most important and affecting purpose is to pass on a harrowing first-hand account of what it meant to play in the “orchestra” at Auschwitz – not only introducing today’s readers to the realities of the Holocaust but also illuminating the political and personal power of music and its acute connection to memories, both precious and distressing.
Walters and Kacer pull off this impressive feat of complex storytelling and make it look easy, with a novel that flows and entertains and devastates. Above all, they respect their intended audience by not trivializing the high and lows of middle-school and by being honest, open, and unflinching about some of the more dark and traumatic aspects of history.