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Rachel’s Secret

by Shelly Sanders

Rachel knows that she wants more out of life than her predetermined path. As a young Jewish girl living in pre-revolutionary Russia, the 14-year-old is expected to assume the traditional roles of wife and mother, though she dreams of travelling the world and becoming a writer.

Rachel’s rebellion against expectations makes her instantly relatable for young readers, yet her story, set during the months surrounding the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, delves into much darker issues than most contemporary teens have to face. Rising anti-Semitism and political unrest are part of her everyday life, and Rachel is forced to keep quiet about the identity of her Christian friend Mikhail’s killer in order to ensure her family’s safety.

The novel’s greatest strength lies in its careful blending of fact and fiction. Many of the events depicted are true: Mikhail’s murder and the subsequent scapegoating of the Jewish community for his death; the hateful rumours about Jews killing Christians for blood rituals; and the anti-Jewish riot that left 51 people dead, more than 400 injured, as well as 700 homes and 600 shops vandalized or destroyed.

An historical note at the end of the novel explains that Rachel’s life represents the typical experience of Jews living in Kishinev at the time. Author Shelly Sanders shrewdly uses the character to give young readers someone to identify with while reading about horrifying events, an approach that renders the information much more accessible. Unfortunately, an overly dramatic writing style often undermines the story’s serious content and may turn off advanced readers.