As she was growing up, Edmonton author, Debby Waldman listened to many stories told by her mother and aunts about her grandparents and the farm they had in upper New York state during the depression. She used details from these family stories to invent her fictional character, Miriam.
Set during the depression, Miriam is an eleven-year-old Jewish girl who is spending the winter with her grandparents while her parents are on a long sea voyage to the old country to help bring family to America. Miriam’s grandparents, although not wealthy, are known for helping anyone who needs work or a good meal. In those days when “hobos rode the rails”, Zayda’s farm was known as a safe place. Miriam loves her grandparents, and there is strong evidence of a warm, positive intergenerational relationship. But, Miriam misses her friends, and the hustle of urban life. She spends a lot of time in the barn befriending the kittens, and eventually discovers the stow-away – Cissy, also eleven, is the sister of one of the migrant workers on the farm and in hiding because her brother fears she will be sent to an orphanage if discovered. Miriam wants to share Cissy with her grandparents but is sworn to secrecy. As the friendship develops, the girls discover similarities in their religious backgrounds. Readers who are not Jewish will learn a great deal about the traditions and stories associated with Passover and the Seder.
Waldman alludes to the racism that would have existed in this historical period, but it is subtle and does not take away from the predominate themes of understanding our differences, respecting religious freedoms, cultivating friendship and a sense of belonging. Her grandmother tells Miriam, “Sometimes, seeing things through other people’s eyes helps you to understand things in a new way,” – Miriam and Cissy both learn this to be true.