Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Hard Times: R My Name Is Rachel by Patricia Reilly Giff

It's rent day. I pull on my wrinkled Sunday dress. I must have grown when I wasn't looking.

My good shoes are under the bed. I pull them on. My feet have grown, too.

I talk to myself all the way to town, talk out loud, using the most persuasive voice I have. This has to work. Otherwise--

Never mind otherwise.

The real estate man sits with his feet up on the desk. Who's buying a farm now? Who's even renting?

"I want to talk to you about our farm," I say.

"We don't have the money just now." Every word is pulled out of me.

Twelve-year-old Rachel used to be happy. She liked their snug apartment in the city. She loved her school and little local library that kept her in books. She loved their family friend, Miss Mitzie, who invited her into her cozy flower shop and gave her sweet hot tea and her warm friendship. She even loves Clarence, the cranky stray cat whom she feeds every day with scraps from Charlie the butcher.

But then the Great Depression settles like a cold fog over their lives. Her father’s bank job ends with the closure of the bank. He finds another job open in another state, but that means the family–Rachel, ten-year-old Cassie, and nine-year-old Joey–must leave the place they’ve always known as home and move to a farm a long way for everything they love.

Their old truck loaded with everything they own, the family sets off over the wintry roads–but not before Rachel, with the surprising collusion of the usually non-cooperative Cassie, manages to catch Clarence the cat and take him along.

The family finds the farm an overwhelming disappointment–no electricity or water, peeling paint, holes in the roof, cobwebby and full of mice–and in the confusion of arrival, Clarence escapes into the woods. And in short order things get worse. A heavy snowstorm blocks the road to town on Pop’s first day at work, and by the time he is able to walk to town, dressed in his best gray suit and red silk tie, the job has been given to someone else. The only work Pop can find is in a grocery, working only for handouts of vegetables too old to be sold. And to Rachel’s dismay, the two-room community school and library are closed for lack of funds.

Then Pop hears of work with the Mr. Roosevelt’s WPA. But it’s far away, on the Canadian border, and he’ll have to be away for at least two months, leaving the children on their own. For over a month, they hear nothing from Pop, no letter telling them where he is, and no letter with money to make the rent. As the oldest, Rachel knows she has to find some way to keep them going with food to eat and a roof over their heads.

Just released in its 2012 paperback edition, Newbery author Patricia Reilly Giff’s R My Name Is Rachel (Random House, 2011) tells a story all too familiar to many of us whose families, my own included, faced similar tough times during the Great Depression. Rachel keeps her siblings together as best she can, even walking miles to town each day to work in a store for hours in exchange for packets of seeds to plant their garden. Only her own resilience and the letters that come from Miss Mitzie give her the strength to keep going. Despite the family’s struggles, R My Name Is Rachel is a hopeful story that emphasizes both self reliance and the value of human connections and mutual assistance.

Says Publishers Weekly, “Rachel's searing, present-tense narrative exposes her fears, determination, and hopefulness in the face of wrenching challenges. Recurring motifs——color, flowers, and drawings by a neighbor that Rachel discovers in unlikely places——add lyricism to this story of family solidarity.”

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