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Jesse’s Star

by Ellen Schwartz

It’s a common classroom assignment: how and why did your ancestors come to Canada? But few youngsters are as unprepared as Jesse. His family never talks about its history and Jesse has never asked. Now he has to come up with answers by tomorrow.

The framework for this lively time-travel adventure is prosaic enough, but once Jesse sneezes his way through attic dust to examine his great-great-grandfather’s travelling case, the story comes alive. Just by donning the tarnished Star of David he finds in the case, Jesse is whisked back to the village of Braslav in 1890, and turns (temporarily) into his ancestor Yossi.

Here’s where B.C. author Ellen Schwartz begins to shine. Yossi is an endearingly klutzy, high-spirited youngster who uses his wits, spunk, and a pair of stilts to help the Jewish villagers escape from Russian soldiers threatening a looting and burning raid. Yossi is something of the town clown, teased and scolded for his clumsy over-eagerness to help. When he realizes that the soldiers are superstitiously frightened of the witch Baba Yaga, he sneaks out into the moonlight and impersonates the horrible hag with his stilts and a raggedy costume. Yossi’s stunt gives the villagers time to snatch a few possessions and flee. By the time they reach Canada, Yossi is seen as a hero – just in time for Jesse to awaken in the attic with a new sense of family pride and attachment.

Schwartz’s “magic” is under-imagined and unconvincing, but her depiction of the village has all the gusto and sprightly characterization of a folk tale. The marauding soldiers are, appropriately for the age of intended readers, ignorant and loutish rather than hatefully murderous. This optimistic tale of Jewish immigration fills a niche with its appealing warmth and energy.