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Nothing Here by Stones

Nancy Oswald


Ages 9 to 12

Henry Holt, 2004, 0-8050-7565-1

  Emma is certain that life in America will be better than it was in Russia. It has to be. Back in Russia her people, the Jews, could not own land. They were forced to serve in the Tsar’s army for long periods of time, and they were treated with great cruelty. Emma has heard her father talk about how in America anyone can have land. There her family will be able to farm in peace without having to be afraid that soldiers will come to steal and destroy what they have worked for.

  When they arrive after their long journey what they see is not at all what Emma expected. Emma did not expect their new land to be bare and rocky. She did not expect to see looming mountains and open wastes. There is no friendly little town to live in. No comfortable house to call home. Instead she and her family will have to live in a small unfinished one room building. There is no door or windows to keep out the cold and the bears. The soil is full of rocks and it is poor for growing crops. It would appear that Emma’s family and the others that have traveled with them have been cheated by the men who were supposed to buy them land and build their homes. Not only did these men not get Emma’s family good land and build them a good home, but they also say they have used all the money Emma’s father sent them. Now the families are going to have to rely on store credit and the food they can grow to survive. It is a desperate state of affairs.

  In this time of worry Emma has one thing which gives her some happiness. Emma helped rescue an injured horse and now she and her friend Minnie are caring for it. Minnie is sure that the horse, Mazel, will recover enough to walk again. If only he will heal quickly. If he takes too long Emma knows that Mazel will be destroyed, for he is of no use to the community as he is now.

  When the first frost arrives early and the food crops have to be harvested when the plants are still small the families really begin to wonder how on earth they will survive the winter. Should they have left Russia just to die of starvation in the wilds of Colorado?

  This tale is based on the true story of a group of Russian Jewish families who tried to create an agricultural settlement near Cotopaxi, Colorado. Unfortunately they were not only cheated by the people who were supposed to be helping them by they also had to contend with bears and with an unusually early and severe winter in 1882.

  Though the story is full of hardship and loss, grief and pain, we also find that Emma discovers something very important about her father, something which she never knew and which we will help and sustain her in the future. We see her hold on to her love for Mazel, even when so much else seems to be falling apart. We see that these brave people, despite their suffering, do not give up. They still celebrate their festivals and their weddings. They still give thanks for the good things. It is therefore a story which is full of hope and it is a tribute to this particular group of immigrants and to the thousands of others who came before and after them.

  Beautifully written, this lovely story is both moving and thought-provoking. It examines a young girl’s relationship with her past and her hopes with her future. It looks at her relationships with her family and friends, and it explores a time when people from all kinds of places where coming to America where they hoped to begin a new life.

Nothing Here but Stones


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