Yesterday I read this 2016 middle grade fiction novel about a twelve year old French Jewish boy named Gustave and his experience of immigrating to the United States during World War II. Because of this book, and yesterday’s review of It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel, and some other upcoming reviews, it seems to have turned into Refugee and Immigrant Week here at Semicolon. It was an unplanned emphasis, but one that is quite apropos considering the news and the times we live in.
In Skating With the Statue of Liberty, Gustave and his extended family come to the United States from war-torn France, after having hidden and then escaped from the Nazis. The family faces many challenges. They are not allowed to bring adequate funds with them to start a new life, and so they are forced to smuggle in what little money they have. No one in the family speaks English, except for Gustave who has learned a little bit of English in school. Gustave’s father can only get a low-paying job as a janitor. Gustave doesn’t understand many things about American culture and customs, and even in America, he faces instances of anti-Semitism and racism as he becomes friends with a “Negro” girl, September Rose.
I read in the book cover blurb that this novel is a companion to the author’s debut novel, Black Radishes. Now I want to go back and read that one because Skating With the Statue of Liberty was a great story. It feels historically accurate, and yet the themes and scenes are quite applicable to the issues of racism and anti-Semitism that we see in the news today. Gustave struggles with whether he should think of himself as French or American or something else, perhaps Jewish. He discusses with a rabbi his lack of faith in a God who would allow the horror and persecution of Jews in German-occupied France. September Rose’s family struggles with how to support their country and the war effort and also stand against the injustice and discrimination that they face as black Americans.
I found this book, by a Jewish author and based partly on her father’s stories of his childhood escape from Nazi-occupied France, to be well-written, historically informative, and absorbing. The plot doesn’t sugarcoat the issues of prejudice, anti-immigrant persecution, discrimination, and even racial and anti-Semitic violence, but the ending and the growing friendship between Gustave and September Rose are hopeful and encouraging.
I just think kids (and adults) need books like this one and like It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel to help them begin to make sense of what is happening politically and socially in our nation. It may have been a coincidence that I read these two books almost back to back, but it gave me an idea to showcase the many really good books about refugees and immigrants that I have read and loved. So that’s what I’ll be doing this week.