cover image Streets of Gold

Streets of Gold

Rosemary Wells, Mary Antin, Dan Andreasen. Dial Books, $16.99 (40pp) ISBN 978-0-8037-2149-4

Among a profusion of books about turn-of-the-century Russian-Jewish emigrants, Wells's (Mary on Horseback) and Andreasen's (Eagle Song) story about Mary Antin (1881-1949) stands out for its exceptional economy and tenderness. Short passages from Anton's memoir The Promised Land appear in margins here, complementing Wells's first-person text. Masha (her name was later Americanized to Mary) begins with a description of her family's life under the czarist regime. Wells avoids rhetoric, striking home with powerful details and images: an official measures her brother's nose with a ruler (""Only short-nosed Jewish boys could attend school""); after Masha's father leaves for America, the first step in the whole family's emigration, the czar's police confiscate all their possessions (""every rickety chair and pair of shoes in our house""). One of the great strengths of the text is its embrace of contradictory elements: in Boston, the Antins' tenement apartment is squalid, yet the school is wonderful. Less than a year after arriving in America, the girl writes an epic verse in praise of George Washington that gets published in a newspaper: she, like Wells and Andreasen, perceives how the slum alleyways can sometimes seem like ""streets of gold."" Stately oils convincingly express Masha/Mary's sorrow, yearning, confusion and blossoming text and art put a human face on an archetypal experience. Ages 5-up. (May)