A New Life: A Review of ‘The Memory Coat’

“All journeys begin by leaving one place to venture to another.” – Ellis Island

Reading Level: 

Grades 2 – 3  [according to common core]

Grade  3.7      [according to Scholastic – reflects the grade level at which a student reading on grade could read the book independently]

Review and Comments:

The Memory Coat by Elvira Woodruff is a story about loss and a hopeful new beginning – the loss of a beloved mother, the loss of a community and country, and the promise of a better life in a new country.

The story begins in Russia where many Jewish people live together in a close community.  In that town live Rachel and her cousin, Grisha, and their large, loving family.  Rachel and Grisha have a very special relationship.  Grisha comes to live with Rachel and her family after his parents die in an epidemic. He still grieves deeply over his loss but when he wears his coat, lined with the wool from his mother’s coat; it makes him feel close to her. Rachel is allowed to share some of those sad times with him because they are best friends and share every private thought.  She joins him when he seeks solace outside the synagogue where they hear the songs and prayers of the faithful.  They also share a love of stories.  Rachel is an avid story teller and Grisha is the artist who makes her stories come alive visually through his illustrations. These long hours of storytelling comfort Grisha and occupy their days.

Not long after Grisha comes to live with Rebecca’s family, the community hears that the Cossacks are coming and plan to kill anyone who is Jewish.  This causes great turmoil in the town and in Rachel’s family.  They know that they cannot stay in Russia so they plan to start a new, safer life in America.  Their plans require much sacrifice as they sell almost all their possessions in order to buy tickets for the passage.  They also feel a great deal of apprehension because of potential dangers during their trip and the possibility of being separated at Ellis Island for any reason.

The family travels for fourteen days on the ship and finally arrives at Ellis Island.  Everyone stands in lines as inspectors check the immigrants.  While they wait, Grisha unexpectedly falls against a basket and scratches his eye lid.  When his eye is examined the inspector determines there is a medical problem and marks an “E” in chalk on the back of his coat.  The family fears Grisha will not be allowed to enter America.  Suddenly, Rachel turns Grisha’s coat inside out so the chalk is concealed.  Grisha is examined one more time.  This time the doctor sees the scratch for what it is and Grisha is allowed to proceed with the rest of the family to a new life in America.

And what happened to the coat overflowing with memories?  It is teaching lessons of love and courage to Grisha’s grandchildren.

The Memory Coat presents a story to young readers about a faith filled Jewish family who face real danger yet through sacrifice and the strong conviction realize a better life. These lessons and the devoted relationship of Rebecca and Grisha are inspiring.  The reader gains an insight into the life of the immigrants who came to America and were processed through Ellis Island.  This story will help children learn about a period in the history of America and the brave people who became its citizens.

The illustrations reflect the emotion of the story very well.  When the family is together, there is distinctive color and detail.  When the Jewish community is leaving Russia and when the immigrants are anxiously waiting in line at Ellis Island, the colors are gray and white and some figures fade into the background.

Because of the subject matter of the story, I believe the story is better suited for children who are on the older side of the suggested reading range.  I recommend that parents read the book first and determine the appropriateness of the storyline for their child.

Possible Issues:

  • There are no issues with this book.
  • Sensitive or young children may be upset when:
  1. Grisha’s parents die and he continues to grieve.
  2. The Cossacks are “looking to kill anyone who was Jewish.”
  3. The health inspector at Ellis Island examines Grisha’s eye by lifting his eyelid with a buttonhook.

Further Discussion:

  • Locate Russia on a world map. Identify: continent, hemisphere, and capitol, etc.
  • Rachel uses her imagination when making up a story and Grisha illustrates the stories. Have your child write or dictate an original story and illustrate the story
    • Or divide the story and make a book with a series of illustrations.
  • Share family memories with items such as: pictures, jewelry, a diary etc., which tell a story about a member of the family. [This item(s) could be the inspiration for an original story.]
  • Rachel’s family sold most of their possessions in order to buy passage to America. Ask your child to pretend he or she is traveling to America and is allowed to take one precious possession that touches his or her heart. What is that item and why is it chosen?
  • “Tenement Museum” has prepared lesson plans about immigration for grades 1-3. It uses primary sources that bring the experience alive for this reading age group.

Catholic Resources:

  1. Saint Andrew, Apostle
  2. Saint Basil the Great
  3. Saint Casimir
  4. Saint Joseph, Husband of Mary
  5. Saint Nicholas of Myra
  • CCC 839 “Those who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the People of God in various ways.” The relationship of the Church with the Jewish People. When she delves into her own mystery, the Church, the People of God in the New Covenant, discovers her link with the Jewish People, “the first to hear the Word of God.” The Jewish faith, unlike other non-Christian religions, is already a response to God’s revelation in the Old Covenant. To the Jews “belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ”, “for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.”

O God, who commanded us to honor our father and our mother, in Your mercy have pity on the souls of my parents and forgive them their sins. May I see them again in the joy of everlasting brightness. Through Christ our Lord.

Amen

Jewish Prayer in Memory of a Mother or Father: May God remember the soul of my respected mother/father (name) who has passed to her/his eternal rest. I pledge charity in her/his behalf and pray that her/his soul be kept among the immortal souls of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, and all the righteous men and women in paradise. Amen.

 

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