Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

A House of Tailors

A House of Tailors

Patricia Reilly Giff
Historical Fiction
For ages 12 and up
Random House, 2006   ISBN: 978-0385730662

Dina Kirk hates sewing. Unfortunately for Dina, her mother is a dressmaker, and sewing is what Dina must do day after day, week after week. It is ironic that Dina is in fact the best tailor in the family, producing tiny, even stitches, strong seams, and beautiful decorative embroidery.  How strange it is that the most skilled needlewoman in the family is the one who hates sewing the most. 

The family has decided that Dina's sister Katharina will go to America, to live in New York City with their uncle's family. Katharina has wanted to go to America ever since she was a small girl and she is very excited at the prospect. Then Dina gets herself into terrible trouble and the family have to protect her; they have to hide her. There is only one thing to do; Dina must go to America in Katharina's place;

New York City turns out to be nothing like the city that Dina conjured up in her dreams. It is a dirty, hot place, and her uncle's apartment is small and poor looking. To make matters worse, as soon as she enters the apartment Dina discovers that "this was a house of tailors." The very thing Dina thought she had escaped from, a life full of sewing, is there in front of her. Dina is determined that she will not sew, and she is also determined that she will go home as soon as she can raise the money for her passage.

Poor Dina soon realizes that she cannot run away from sewing, and soon she is putting trousers together for her uncle using her uncle's old sewing machine. As she works Dina consoles herself with the thought that the money that she earns from her work will get her home, back to Germany, back to her pretty town on the Rhine River.

As so often happens, things do not turn out as Dina expects. As time passes she begins to form bonds with New York City and with the people that she gets to know who live there. In times of trouble she finds herself defending and protecting her new family - her uncle, her sweet aunt, and her lovable, if difficult, little baby cousin.

Drawing on the real story of her own great-grandmother, Patricia Reilly Giff has created a story that is full of surprises and memorable themes. It also serves as wonderful tribute to the families who settled in New York City in the late 1870's.  Being poor and unable to speak English, life was hard for such people, and it took great courage and hard work to survive. With the consummate skill that we have seen in her previous books, Giff weaves a tale that is intensely personal, and it leaves the reader feeling awed that such a simple story can be both extremely powerful, and very moving.