cover image Speed of Light

Speed of Light

Sybil Rosen, Sibyl Rosen. Atheneum Books, $16 (176pp) ISBN 978-0-689-82437-1

Rosen's overly ambitious novel is set in a Virginia mill town in 1956. The narrator, 11-year-old Audrey Stern, belongs to one of the few Jewish families in the area. She becomes acutely conscious of her heritage when her father, a town councilman, sponsors a black man's application to be a policeman. Outraging racist townspeople, Mr. Stern's actions precipitate a wave of anti-Semitism-including vandalism that terrifies Tante, Audrey's difficult distant cousin and Holocaust survivor who lives with the Sterns. Before the turmoil is resolved, Audrey learns about Tante's experiences in Auschwitz (""How could I ever have felt anything but pity for her?"" she reproaches herself); Tante overcomes her pain and forges a bond with Audrey, aided by her somewhat convenient discovery that Audrey looks a lot like herself; and Audrey teaches and receives lessons in courage. As the title suggests, there's also an astronomy motif that shows up in various metaphors. The plotting is believable only up to a point, and the weight of the themes is always evident, given Rosen's heavy-handedness. The dialogue, too, strains in the author's attempts to convey various Southern dialects as well as Tante's Yiddish inflections. However, there are flashes of grace and insight, signs that this first novelist may rise to the challenging topics she has chosen for herself. Ages 10-14. (July)