Sixteen year old Essie must navigate the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the turn of the twentieth century. She has a family to feed, a friend to follow, and a sister to sew a hat for. But navigating the Lower East Side of Manhattan has never been easy. Especially not in 1911. Especially not when you begin to wonder if your friend isn’t who she says she is. Is her friend lost? Or is Essie lost? And can she ever find her way back?
This is, most definitely, one of those books that, once you pick it up, it becomes difficult to put it back down. So, when you are walking by that young person’s bedroom at 11 pm and suggesting the lights go out – you might want to check the bed for flashlights. Yes. The book is just that good!
The book is set against the backdrop of two historical events in early 20th century New York: the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911, and the disappearance of a Dorothy Harriet Camille Arnold. It is the story of a young Jewish girl, Essie, who has lost her father, and then her youngest sister. But more than that, it is the story of the love between Essie and her younger sister Zelda. And then it is the story of the friendship between Essie and Harriet as they both struggle with their loss. Together, they are lost.
The story bounces back and forth – with the visual aid of different colored pages – between the past and the present. The past being Essie’s recounting of her family life through the interactions between her and her younger sister Zelda. It’s told with such poignancy, and such attention to the little things that matter that I grew to love the “little fierce rabbit” Zelda as much as Essie did.
The present is Essie’s account of her friendship with Harriet. Of course, I had my suspicions of what was really troubling Essie as she wandered the East side streets of New York looking for ribbon, looking for silk, looking for Harriet, looking for…something that was missing. I knew what was missing – and you will, too – but I wouldn’t dare intrude on Essie and tell her, even if I could. She was such a gentle soul, with such fierce determination that I just let her lead me, page by page, through the story. Of course, Essie finds what she’s looking for. She finds more than she had dared to hope look for.
So, relationships are portrayed beautifully. But there is also faith in this book. Not unicorns. Not ponies. Not Catholic. But a no-nonsense Jewish faith portrayed with respect and even reverence. It is at once realistic and beautiful. Here is Essie as she is approaching “the Tombs”:
“I wanted to have faith. But faith in what? I didn’t know.”
But then, she does know. And it is so startlingly obvious and truthful.
“…part of the faith is the doing of the thing – saying the prayer, lighting the candles, reading the words – doing even before the believing happens. So I said my prayer on the steps of The Tombs.”
I liked this most about the book. The questioning towards hope and not away from it. And then the answering of that hope in kind. There aren’t any rainbows at the end to tie it all up pretty. But there are bows. And I think if Essie would have had a choice in the matter, there would have been glitter. The book had such a satisfyingly delicious ending that I could do nothing but sigh.
See below for any tidbits that you might find offensive. As for me, I plan to hand the book over to my 7th grader. I just have to introduce her to Essie, and Zelda, and Harriet.
What You Need to Know
- Role Models/Authority Figures – Essie’s mother is harsh, but full of love. Characters consistently do the right thing through out this novel, and they don’t preach at you while they do it!
- Violence – The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is described from the perspective of Essie, while trapped on the 8th floor. Also, a suicide in that fire.
- Sexual Content – Kissing scene. Essie imagines herself with Jimmy.
- Consumerism – Reference to books and literature that Essie borrows from the library.
- Drinking/Smoking/Drugs – Yep. Essie’s crush smokes.
- Religion – Essie is Jewish, and is upset her mother doesn’t practice anymore now that Essie’s father is passed away. Essie talks about sometimes having faith is about the doing first. Essie explores the idea of free will.
- Other – A few swear words
- Awards – Eliot Rosewater Awards 2012-2013