For my initial contribution to our bimonthly theme, Festival of Asian Literature and the Immigrant Experience, I share with you Linda Heller’s award-winning picture book called The Castle On Hester Street. While the book is far away from Asian literature, it does talk about the immigrant experience.
The Castle On Hester Street won the Sydney Taylor Book Award when it was originally published in 1982. The copy I borrowed from the library was the 25th Anniversary Edition, and it featured the zany albeit beautiful artworks of Boris Kulikov.
The Immigrant Experience Etched on Two Sides of a Coin. When I searched this picture book online, I immediately loved the cover and thought that it might be an interesting book. Sure enough, I had fun reading it from start to finish. As unique as its illustrations, The Castle on Hester Street presents the immigrant experience through the opposing yet heartwarming stories of Julie’s grandparents.
“Moishe the goat was from my village in Russia,” Julie’s grandfather said. “He pulled the wagon I rode in when I came to America. Not only could Moishe leap across oceans the way others jump over puddles, but he also could sing. We started singing the moment we left Russia. ‘9,092 miles to go, 9,092 miles, after we pass that small patch of snow we’ll have 9,091 miles to go…’ Moishe’s wagon was solid gold. It shone like a shooting star when we flew over the ocean.”
“That’s a story, all right, but it’s not true!” Julie’s grandmother said. “Grandpa came on a boat, like I did. It was terrible. Hundreds of families were crowded together. Babies were crying. Bundles were piled over. The boat rocked so much, I thought we would drown. But in Russia, life for Jews was very hard. We couldn’t live or work where we wanted. Sometimes we were attacked just because we were Jews. We had to leave Russia any way we could.”
It is for this crisp storytelling alone that I found the book so delightful. Julie’s grandfather actually reminded me a bit of Roberto Benigni’s character, Guido, in the 1997 film Life Is Beautiful. Set during WWII, at a time when Germans were hunting down Jews, Guido tried to protect his son from the horrors of war by turning everything into a game. In a similar manner, Julie’s grandfather reimagines his immigrant experience into something magical and extraordinary.
A Portrait of an Immigrant’s Life. Through the narrative of Julie’s grandmother, readers, young and old alike, will learn about the plight of immigrants who moved to America. As an immigrant myself, I am familiar with the stories told by Julie’s grandmother. One of the things that struck me, however, was the part where she told Julie about people being ‘inspected.’
“Not everyone who came could stay. If you were sick, you had to go back. I was so afraid they would find something wrong with me, but, thank God, I passed every test.”
Wouldn’t it be dreadful for those who had to go back? I can only imagine how these people felt in real life, having to return to a place they were trying to run away from. All seriousness aside, this ‘inspection’ brought back memories when I was going through the tedious immigration process. Like all others, I went through a medical exam. The funny thing, though, was that I wasn’t worried about being denied. I was more worried about finding out some kind of disease I might have. Ha!
Stories Filled With Warmth, Love, and Humor. I highly recommend The Castle On Hester Street to everyone. It’s such an adorable read down to its last page. It’s neither too heavy nor too light for readers, especially the younger ones. It handles the subject of immigration with care, without sounding too depressing. Maybe it’s just me being so used to the company of old people because of my profession, but Julie’s grandfather has become one of my favorite picture book characters. So charming!