In Rachel’s Secret (Second Story Press), the debut young readers novel by Toronto writer Shelly Sanders, the title character is a strong-willed teenage girl living in 1903 Kishinev, Russia.
Unlike most girls her age and in her time period, the 14-year-old Jewish girl wasn’t interested in just growing up and becoming a wife and mother. She had dreams of becoming a journalist and maybe travelling the world.
As Passover approaches, Rachel’s life is turned upside down when a Christian friend of hers is murdered in a park. The local newspaper whips up antisemitic fervour by making outrageous claims of blood libel and stating that the boy, Mikhail, was killed by Jews to make matzah.
As you’d expect, the hatred builds up to a boiling point and leads to an Easter Sunday pogrom in which Jewish businesses are torched and Jews beaten and some killed.
The story was inspired by Sanders’ grandmother’s life in pre-Revolutionary Russia.
The author’s strength is her powerful description giving attention to the small details that vividly illustrate early 20th-century Russia. The coachman’s tall black hat, for instance, is described as a stovepipe.
Her simple description of a boy Sergei drinking tea shows the unique Russian way of sucking the drink through a sugar cube held between the teeth.
This powerful and educational story, geared toward teenage readers, continues Second Story Press’ strong tradition of publishing books with strong female characters for teenagers and young adults.