We all know what it's like to start over. It may be a new grade level at the beginning of a year. Or we may have moved to a new community. This means we will adjust to a new neighborhood, a new school or a new job. We leave behind the familiar entering into the unknown. Some aspects of our lives are better. There are other reminders of those things we love that are left behind.
For those who come from one country to live in another country it's more difficult, especially if circumstances have forced them to make this choice. Lucky Broken Girl (Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, April 11, 2017), a debut middle grade novel by Ruth Behar, is based upon her real life experiences. It is a powerful, moving story about the ability of a girl to heal herself physically and emotionally.
When we lived in Cuba I was smart. But when we got to Queens, in New York City, in the United States of America, I became dumb, just because I couldn't speak English.
This is how we are introduced to Ruthie, placed in the alternative class of fifth grade at P. S. 117 for students who struggle with math, reading and discipline. (She and her Jewish family came to America fleeing a Cuba under the rule of Castro in the 1960s.) She is joined by another student from a different country, Ramu, from India. He and his family live on the same sixth floor as Ruthie and her family. They both have younger brothers in kindergarten, Izzie and Avik. After eight months on a Friday they pass a spelling test allowing them to move to the regular class on the following Monday.
On that same Friday Ruthie and Izzie receive gifts from their Papi when he comes home from work. This is as unexpected treat as the family has little money. They live in a one bedroom apartment with Ruthie and Izzie sharing a bedroom and her parents sleeping on a fold-out couch in the living room. It prompts a heated discussion between Mami, Ruthie's mother, and her father.
An even bigger surprise is in store for them when Papi returns home from his Saturday job with a brand new car, a sky blue Oldsmobile. The next day they all, including Baba, their grandmother, drive to the home of friends on Staten Island. The return ride back to their apartment will alter the course of Ruthie's life.
In a multi-car collision leaving many dead, the Mizrahi family is uninjured with minor cuts and bruises except for Ruthie. Her right leg is severely fractured. In order for her leg to heal in the best possible manner, offering her a good chance to walk again, she is placed in a body cast up to her chest. Initially the doctor tells Ruthie and her family she is to be immobile for six months, only moved by a pole between her legs, to relieve herself and to sleep.
Family members, Papi, Mami, little Izzie, Uncle Bill and Aunt Sylvia (Mami's sister), young twin cousins Dennis and Lily, Baba and Zeide, her maternal grandparents, neighborhood girlfriends, a teacher, Joy Hoffman, Ramu and Avik, a new tenant called Chicho and a nurse named Amara swirl in and out of Ruthie's small world. Small and large kindnesses feed Ruthie's soul, Nancy Drew books to read by daylight and flashlight thanks to Joy, a necklace with the god Shiva dancing on it from Ramu, a mural painted on her cast and painting supplies brought to her by Chicho, Halloween candy collected for her by Izzie, the gift of a typewriter from Papi, a generous present on New Year's Day arranged by special friends, and a woman who won't give up. Four months pass and an x-ray dictates a new body cast for four more months. Finally Ruthie has a cast from her toes to the top of her thigh on only her right leg. Will the Hopscotch Queen of Queens ever heal and walk again?
As compelling as an edge-of-your-seat thriller the voice of Ruthie rings out right into your psyche on the first page. Someday every reader will be ten going on eleven, is ten or soon to be eleven or remembers those years as if there were yesterday. Ruthie's perspective is so true to life we feel every single moment with her. Through her thoughts, conversations with others (especially her Baba's stories), conversations she overhears, and daily incidents we live in her skin. We are keenly aware of her family's (immediate and extended) structure and everyone's place in it.
Author Ruth Behar accomplishes this by breaking the narrative into five parts and thirty-one chapters. Each chapter has a heading revealing the essence of its place in Ruthie's story; go-go boots, poco a poco, if Mami stops taking care of me, help me not to hate, applause, applause, birthday wish, the shell is inside me now, true friend, or you can't hug the wall forever. Several of the chapters conclude with Ruthie talking to God, Shiva, Frida (Kahlo), or all three of them. Here are some sample passages. (I am working with a bound galley.)
In the bedroom I notice my rag doll is missing. She usually sits on my bed, on top of my pillow.
I run back to the kitchen. "Mami, where's my doll from Cuba?"
"It was falling apart. Didn't you notice the stuffing had come out and was getting all over everything?"
"But where is it?"
"I threw it in the garbage."
"Mami, why? That was my doll from Cuba."
"We'll get you a new doll when we have a little money. Now hurry up and get changed so you can help me."
"Mami, that was so mean! You should have asked me first."
I knew I was getting too old to go to sleep cuddling a doll, but with her in my arms I felt that Cuba wasn't so far away. Now she is gone and I feel like I could cry. But I want to be strong, not weak and sad like Mami, so I try to cheer myself up.
Papi shakes his head and sighs. He tries to speak English but mixes Spanish in. "My wife no sabe appreciate that she can complain all she wants because she's in America. Este en un pais libre, the best country in the world."
Mami wipes her tears with her embroidered Cuban handkerchief that I think is too beautiful to soil with her sadness.
Out of the darkness a man appears. He looks in through the broken windows, struggles with the lock on the back door, and finally flings it open.
Who is this man? Blood is dripping from the top of his head.
"Papi! Papi! Why did you all leave me? Papi, I lost one of my boots. Can we go look for it?"
"Later. The car might catch fire."
He bends and picks me up, trying to cradle my right leg in the crook of his arm. But the leg flops down like the legs of my old rag doll from Cuba.
"Stop, Papi! It hurts!"
"She's been in bed for over four months," Mami says to him, as if I can't talk for myself. "The doctor says she'll have to be in bed another four." Then she lifts the covers in one swoop. She lets him gaze at the cast on my legs and at the pole between my ankles. I feel like I'm her freak-show daughter.
But Chicho looks me straight in the eyes and I can tell that he commiserates with me. He rubs the corners of his dark eyes and pushes back his thick black hair that stands on end.
"You want to sign my cast?" I ask him.
"Mi amor, could I make a picture for you instead?"
"Please, yes, a picture!" I say eagerly.
"Okay, just a minute, and I'll get started."
He runs to his apartment and brings a wooden box filled with paints in many different colors and a few small jars of water.
"This might take a little while, he says. He smiles and starts arranging the paints and brushes along the edge of my bed.
"No rush, I'm not going anywhere," I reply.
He glances at me, "Ay corazon, that's so sad, it's funny."
You simply can't read this book only once. I drank it in the first time all in one sitting like I was parched from days on a desert. On the second reading of Lucky Broken Girl written by Ruth Behar, I paused multiple times moved by the situations endured by this girl. She gains the wisdom of a lifetime within a year. Does she get sad, angry, frightened and discouraged? Yes, yes, yes and yes, but her strength of character and willingness to seek happiness when it's difficult to find is truly beautiful. I highly recommend this book for its rich portrayal of immigrant life within a historical setting, diverse cast of characters, and introducing us to this remarkable girl who put herself together.
To learn more about Ruth Behar and her other work please visit her website by following the link attached to her name. At her site is a link to an eight-page Educator's Guide. You can view the title pages, dedication, contents and read an excerpt at the publisher's website. Here is a link to the cover reveal at the Nerdy Book Club with an essay by Ruth Behar.
UPDATE: You will want to read this interview of Ruth Behar by author Deborah Diesen on her blog, Jumping The Candlestick.
Enjoy the book trailer.