Yankee at the Seder
Center for Children's Books
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by Elka Weber; illustrated by Adam Gustavson
“Mother!” hollers Jacob Josephson, a ten-year-old Virginian. “There’s a
. . . there’s a . . . Yankee Jew outside!” This startling apparition is
significant for two reasons: first, the Civil War has just ended with
the South’s surrender (frustrating Jacob’s Confederate dreams of
soldierly glory), and Yankee soldiers are an alarming presence; second,
Jacob’s family is Jewish, preparing for the Passover seder that night,
so the Yankee corporal’s faith (revealed when he wishes the
matzoh-nibbling Jacob a good holiday and asks for a bite) means that
he’s invited to the Josephsons’ dinner. Though dinner conversation
involves some prickly moments, Corporal Levy
proves to be a polite and gracious guest, and when Jacob steals the
Northerner’s afikoman (final piece of matzoh), he receives as
traditional ransom an untraditional bounty: a Union soldier’s cap (“Now
you can tell all your friends that you got a Yankee’s head”).
Yes, we know this year’s Passover has passed over, but this is a story
of nuance and originality, worth celebrating all year round. The fact
that it’s based on a real incident adds interest, since this isn’t some
mythical tale of faith crossing boundaries but an account of real
people facing a real, and really uncomfortable, situation. There’s no
dry historical hagiography in the style, either: Weber writes Jacob’s
voice with a personable authenticity and quiet polish (“Yankee soldiers
patrolled the streets, walking around as thought they owned Virginia.
To be fair, I
guess they did own Virginia now”), keeping him an accessible and
believable kid with a kid’s-eye view of the war as a thing that
dominates grownup conversation and youthful ambition.
The book’s real masterstroke, though, is the very discomfort of the
situation. Readers accustomed to storybook plot progression may be
expecting a heartwarming tale of enemies finding rapprochement;
instead, the book faces squarely the difficulty of the situation, as
multiple generations of Josephsons (not only Jacob and his parents but
also his grandfather) simultaneously host and face off with their guest
(“It was something to see as they all tried to make polite conversation
without talking about the one subject that was most on their minds”).
The result is a plainspoken and impressive depiction of enemies
negotiating an awkward but workable truce (probably a more
educationally useful model, as well as a more credible one, than a
rosier ending); there’s respect and dignity in the book’s treatment of
both sides as Northerner and Southerner make their case for the
relevance of Passover,
a celebration of freedom from slavery, to their respective stands.
The book is formatted like a picture book, with a white-bordered
full-page image facing each neatly framed page of text. Though
Gustavson’s oil paintings are somber in hue, as befits the period, the
portraiture is expressive and compositions creative (when Corporal Levy
first appears, he’s looming diagonally across the spread and over the
narrator/viewer, bursting past the frame on top), and the faces are
drafted with unusual fluidity for the medium and the period, with a
touch of playfulness that ensures liveliness even in a tense situation.
The solid text
will be equally at home with intermediate readers and thoughtful
readers-aloud, and it’s definitely got promise for evoking post-reading
discussion about faith and individual conscience.
In fact, the book offers any number of promising uses: it’s a
fascinating Civil War story with a difference, it’s an American
counterpart to the World War I Christmas in the trenches story, and
it’s a rich tale of people finding connections through faith in a
difficult time. Weber provides a glossary before the story and
concludes with a compact, personal explanation of the festival of
Passover, so even those unfamiliar with the holiday will have no
difficulty understanding its import in the story. Of probably more
interest to young readers is the thorough note, enhanced with
photographs and source note, about the Civil War, its Jewish soldiers
on both sides, and the real Myer Levy, who did indeed spend his first
post-war Passover as a guest at his former enemies’ table.
Deborah Stevenson, Editor
Cover image by Adam Gustavson from The
Yankee at the Seder ©2009.
Used by permission of Tricycle Press.
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This page was last updated on May 1, 2009.