Steal Away

StealAwaySteal Away by Jennifer Armstrong, 1992.

Most of this story is framed as a flashback, actually two of them.  In the beginning, during the late 1800s, a girl named Mary is taken by her grandmother, Susannah, to visit an old friend of hers who is dying.  The friend, Bethlehem, is a black woman who is a teacher in Canada and has a student living with her, a young black girl named Free, who is about the same age as Mary.  At first, Mary doesn’t completely understand who Bethlehem is and why they are there to see her, and Free is somewhat aloof and suspicious of these white people, but together, Bethlehem and Susannah explain to both the girls about their unusual friendship and a shared history that changed both of their lives forever.  As they explain, Mary writes down their story.

Years ago, before the American Civil War, Susannah was a young teenage orphan.  She traveled from her home in Vermont to the home of her aunt and uncle in Virginia, her new guardians.  Homesick, missing not only her deceased parents but the friends she left behind, especially a boy who is her best friend (and who eventually becomes her husband, Mary’s grandfather), Susannah finds life in Virginia strange and unpleasant.  Her aunt and uncle own slaves, which is something that makes Susannah uneasy.  She was raised not to believe in slavery, but her aunt and uncle give her a slave of her own to take care of her, a girl about her age named Bethlehem.  Susannah is extremely uncomfortable with the situation, not really being the kind of person to get others to do things for her or order anyone around, and Bethlehem isn’t happy about being saddled with this sad, somewhat weak and clueless, white girl.

Bethlehem already has serious problems.  Susannah’s older, male cousin has taken a liking to Bethlehem and pursues her, trying to force his attentions on her.  Bethlehem resists but knows that one day she might not be able to stop him because she’s in his family’s power.  They own her and have authority over her.  Susannah is unaware of this situation at first, being a rather naive girl.  However, Susannah’s unhappiness at her new home increases, and more and more, she longs to return to her real home in Vermont, and her desire to escape also becomes Bethlehem’s ticket to freedom.

Both of the girls long for freedom, although each craves a different kind of freedom and has in mind a different kind of life they long to live elsewhere.  Together, they team up to run away in disguise as boys, although Bethlehem does not trust Susannah at first because she resents white people and the slavery that has been forced on her for her entire life. However, with their common interest in escape, they learn to rely on each other.  They come to trust and understand one another much better during the course of their journey.  It is an eye-opening and life-changing experience for both of them.  Then, when it comes time for them to say goodbye and go their separate ways, it is one of the hardest things that either of them have had to do.

It is a story about lives with separate directions but which crossed in unexpected ways to the benefit of both of them.  Because Susannah and Bethlehem have different destinies and different things that they want in life, they cannot live their lives together and do not see each other again for many years after their adventures, but because of their shared experiences, they still share a bond that lasts across time.

After Bethlehem’s death, Mary becomes concerned about the young student of Bethlehem’s, Free, who was living with her as a part of her family, but Free doesn’t want their help.  Susannah tells Mary that they have to let her live her life and establish her own independence in the way she wants, just as Susannah had to let Bethlehem go her own way years before as a strong, independent young woman who only wanted the freedom to choose her own course in life.

In the end, Mary, as an adult looking back on the one and only time she met her grandmother’s old friend, just before her death, realizes that she has also learned much from the experience, not just about her grandmother’s history, but about herself, other people, racial differences and attitudes, and some of the realities of the world, absorbing vicariously some of the lessons her grandmother learned years ago through her story and Bethlehem’s.

This isn’t really a happy story.  The ending kind of leaves readers with an unsettled feeling because there are many things left unanswered and unresolved.  The book does explain a little about what happens to the characters at the end, but for the most part, they all kind of go their separate ways.  Although they’ve had an effect on each other, nothing is clear-cut, and they share moments together more than lives.  I have to admit that I felt like some of the story dragged in places and others were downright depressing, making this a difficult book to get through.  However, it is interesting for showing a part of history, a life-changing event from different points of view, and some poignant thoughts about caring but letting go.

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive.

Happy Birthday, Molly

American Girls


Happy Birthday, Molly! By Valerie Tripp, 1987.


Molly is excited because she has just learned that an English girl will be coming to stay with her family for a while.  The girl, Emily, is one of the child evacuees from London.  Really, she’s supposed to be staying with her aunt, who also lives in Molly’s town, but her aunt is in the hospital with pneumonia and won’t be able to take her for another couple of weeks.  In the meantime, Molly and her friends are eager to meet her, imagining her to be something like the English princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret Rose.

The girls have a fascination for England after all the things they’ve seen in movies and newsreels.  Recently, they saw a newsreel about bomb shelters in England.  Inspired by what they’ve seen, the girls make a pretend bomb shelter under an old table and enjoy pretending that they are like the people in the newsreel.  Molly’s brother, Ricky, says that it isn’t very realistic, and the girls say that they’ll have to ask Emily when she comes.


However, Emily turns out to be very shy and quiet.  She’s pale and skinny and hardly talks at first.  When the girls show her their “bomb shelter”, she doesn’t want to play in it.  Molly thinks that maybe Emily doesn’t like them, but her mother reminds her that, in World War II England, bomb shelters aren’t places to play.  Emily is the same age as Molly, and the war has been going on since she was a little kid.  Molly’s mother points out that Emily probably doesn’t remember much about life before the war.  Emily is accustomed to bombings and danger all around her, and Molly’s mother compares her to a flower “who’s not sure it’s spring yet.  It will take some time for her to realize it’s safe to come out now.”

Emily goes to Molly’s school, and their classmates are fascinated with her.  This fascination makes Emily even more shy than she would be otherwise as kids try to imitate her accent and ask her questions about what it’s like to see buildings bombed.  To the America kids, the war seems exciting, and they want to know what it’s like to see it up close, but Emily dodges their questions.

Molly finally comes to understand why Emily is so evasive when their town has a blackout drill.  When the drill starts, a siren sounds, and everyone has to go down into their basements until they get the signal that it’s all clear.  Molly is surprised to see that Emily is actually frightened by the drill, but everyone assures her that it’s just for practice, not because Illinois is actually going to be bombed.  In Molly’s family, it’s almost like a game, but Emily has memories of real bombings during the Blitz.  As they sit in the basement during the drill, Emily explains it to Molly: the fear, the explosions, destroyed buildings, people getting hurt or killed.  Molly and her friends thought it was exciting to hear about the war in newsreels, but living it is an entirely different thing.  The drill and everyone’s questions about what bombings are like bring back bad memories for Emily.

As Molly comes to understand Emily’s feelings more, Emily opens up to her.  The girls discover that they share a fascination with Princess Elizabeth and her sister Margaret Rose.  They start playing a game where they pretend to be the princesses, dressing alike in blue skirts and sweaters.  Because the princesses have pet dogs, the girls also pretend that they have dogs, using jump ropes as leashes for their imaginary pets.


Molly’s birthday is approaching, and she offers to let Emily share in her party and help plan it.  She’s curious about what people in England do on their birthdays, and the idea of an English tea party sounds great to her friends.  However, Molly doesn’t like the way that Emily describes English birthdays, and the types of sandwiches that the English tea with tea don’t sound very good.  Worst of all, Emily says that, at her last birthday before the war rationing started, she had a lemon tart instead of a cake.  Molly can’t imagine her birthday without a birthday cake.  Mrs. Gilford, the housekeeper, has been saving up rationed goods for her cake this year, and it’s what she’s been looking forward to the most!

Sharing things with Emily becomes more of a trial for Molly, and when the girls argue about their countries’ contributions to the war effort, they get into a fight and Molly starts thinking that she doesn’t even want Emily at her birthday party.  However, Molly’s mother points out to the girls that the war effort is a team effort.  A couple of special birthday surprises help the girls to make up, including something extra special that helps Emily to heal further from the trauma of the war.

In the Molly, An American Girl movie, Emily plays a larger role than she did in the books.  This is the only book in the series where Emily appears.  Her story was changed somewhat for the movie, too.  In the movie, she says that her mother was killed in a bombing.  In the book, her parents are both still alive, and it was her dog who was killed.  Molly doesn’t learn that until the end of the book when her family gives the girls a pair of puppies as a present, and Emily tells her about her pet dog who died.

In the back of the book, there’s a section with historical information about what it was like to grow up in the 1940s.  It explains how women used to stay in the hospital for about a week after giving birth, and sometimes, they could hire a practical nurse to help them at home as well.  Canned baby food was a new invention, and vaccines helped to prevent disease.  Back then, people still got smallpox shots because the disease hadn’t been eradicated, but there was still nothing to prevent chicken pox or measles, so children with those diseases had to be kept at home with warning signs out front to tell people to stay away from the quarantined house.  (Note: My father was born in 1944, the year that this series takes place, and he said that throughout his early childhood, parents who knew of a child who had chicken pox would deliberately take their children to visit and get the disease.  It wasn’t that they really wanted their children to get sick, but since there was no way to prevent the disease at the time, they had to accept that it was inevitable that their child would catch it eventually, and chicken pox is somewhat peculiar in that there is a kind of age window in which the disease isn’t likely to be too bad.  If you waited too long, and the child got older or even to adulthood without getting it, it was bound to be much worse when they eventually caught it.  So, if your child was about the right age for getting it, in early childhood but no longer a baby, people thought it was best to get it over with so they could benefit from the lifetime immunity afterward.  This remained true even up through the 1980s, my early childhood, which is why I have a permanent scar on my face from the disease.  Now, there are vaccines to prevent it, although I understand that some people still have chicken pox parties in places where the vaccine isn’t readily available. If you have the option, go for the vaccine.  Preventing chicken pox also prevents shingles.)


The historical section also talks about child evacuees, like Emily, and what teenagers did during the 1940s.  It was around this time that people began looking at the teenage years as being a distinct phase of life, and businesses began specifically catering to teenagers.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.


Molly’s Pilgrim


Molly’s Pilgrim by Barbara Cohen, 1983.

Molly has been unhappy since her family moved to the smaller town of Winter Hill, New Jersey so that her father could get a better job. In New York City, there were other Jewish girls like her, and she didn’t feel so strange and out-of-place. The Winter Hollow girls don’t understand her at all and don’t like her. Molly’s family fled Russia to escape persecution, and they’ve only been living in America for about a year.  Molly still has a Yiddish accent and doesn’t quite speak proper English yet.  Molly is constantly teased about the way she talks and her unfamiliarity with American habits.


One girl in particular, Elizabeth, makes up rhymes to make fun of Molly, even following her home from school like a creepy stalker, to continue singing them at her. The other girls follow Elizabeth’s lead because they kind of admire her and because she is always giving them candy.


Then, one day, the girls’ teacher begins teaching them about Thanksgiving. Of course, Elizabeth makes a big deal about the fact that Molly has never heard about Thanksgiving before. But, Molly finds the story about the pilgrims interesting. The teacher says that for their Thanksgiving activity, instead of making paper turkeys like they usually do, the children are going to make clothespin dolls to look like American Indians and pilgrims, so they can create a scene like the first Thanksgiving.


When Molly gets home and explains the assignment to her mother, she has to tell her mother what a “pilgrim” is. She explains it by saying that they were people who came from across the ocean in search of religious freedom. Her mother understands that and offers to help Molly with the doll.

However, when Molly sees what her mother has done with the doll, she is worried. The doll is beautiful, but her mother has dressed the doll in the clothes of a Russian refugee, like Molly’s family, not in the traditional Puritan garb of the pilgrims. At first, Molly is sure that she’ll be teased more than ever at school when she shows up with a doll wearing the wrong clothes and that people will think that she’s stupid for not understanding how pilgrims dressed.


But, Molly’s mother is correct in pointing out that their family are modern pilgrims, coming to America for the same reasons that the original pilgrims did. Molly does get some teasing from Elizabeth (that’s not a surprise, since it’s Elizabeth, after all), but when the teacher asks Molly about the meaning of her doll, it leads everyone to a better understanding, both of the holiday and where Molly and her family fit in with their new country and its history.

Molly’s teacher points out that the holiday of Thanksgiving wasn’t entirely an original idea that the pilgrims invented all by themselves but that they took their inspiration from a much older Jewish tradition from the Old Testament.  Human beings do not exist in a vacuum, and we all regularly take ideas that we’re exposed to and build on them in our own lives.  Although Puritans were generally known for their belief in religious “purity” (hence, their name) and noted for their intolerance to different religions and beliefs, they also strongly believed in education, which frequently involves taking past ideas and knowledge and applying them toward new situations.  Their Thanksgiving celebration was just an example of that, an older idea that they used for their own purpose, adapted to the lives of the people who adopted the tradition.  It was their celebration, but not their sole intellectual property.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive (multiple copies).

There is also a sequel to this book called Make a Wish, Molly, in which Molly learns about birthday parties in the United States.

My Reaction and Additional Information

The book doesn’t mention it, but the word “pilgrim” itself is also much older than the early Puritan colonists in America.  Before the development of the America colonies, it referred to any religious traveler on their way to a holy place, and many people still use it in that sense.  A person on a pilgrimage could be just about anyone from anywhere going to anywhere else as long as the journey has spiritual significance.  The Puritan colonists used that term for themselves to emphasize the reasons why they were seeking new homes in a new land.  For them, it was a kind of pilgrimage to a place where they could start again.  Molly’s family came to America in search of religious freedom, just as the Puritans did.  Their journeys weren’t quite the same, but they shared a common purpose and ended up in the same place (more or less).

By showing the links between Molly and her family and the pilgrims, Molly’s mother and her teacher help the other students to understand that Molly really does fit in, that her being there makes sense, and that she has a place in their class and in their celebration of Thanksgiving.

This story was also made into a short film. I remember seeing it in school when I was a kid in the early 1990s.  I checked on YouTube, and there are trailers posted for this film.  One thing that I hadn’t remembered from when I was a kid was that the time period of the book was earlier than the film.  In the film, the characters are shown to be contemporary with the time the film was made, but the style of dress of the girls in the book’s pictures and the things that Molly’s mother says about why the family left Russia indicate that the book probably takes place during the late 19th century or early 20th century, possibly around the same time as the events in the famous play/movie Fiddler on the Roof.

As a side note, if you’re wondering why the girl is named Molly, which doesn’t sound particularly Russian, Molly is typically a nickname for Mary and other, similar-sounding, related names.  Molly’s mother also calls her Malkeleh, which may be her original name or perhaps another variant, if her original name was Malka, as another reviewer suggests.

In spite of the warning on that last site I linked to about reading a book with your child that may be covered in class, I say to go ahead and read it anyway.  It’s hard to say what books may or may not be used in classes by individual teachers, and if your child’s teacher doesn’t happen to use this one, it’s still a good story.  Perhaps just warn your child not to say something that would spoil the ending for their classmates who haven’t read it yet.

The Surprise Doll


The Surprise Doll by Morrell Gipson, 1949.

Mary is a little girl who lives by the sea. Her father is the captain of a ship, and he travels to different countries all over the world. Sometimes, he brings presents for Mary from his voyages. So far, he has brought six dolls for her:

SurpriseDollTeresaSusan – from England, with rosy cheeks

Sonya – from Russia, with a cute turn-up nose

Teresa – from Italy, with brown eyes

Lang Po – from China, with raised eyebrows

Katrinka – from Holland, with blonde hair

Marie – from France, with a smile that brightens her whole face

Mary loves her dolls, but she realizes that if she had a seventh doll, she would have a doll for each day of the week. She asks her father if he will bring her another, but he says that she already has enough dolls.

When her father refuses her request, Mary pays a visit to the local dollmaker. She takes along her six dolls and explains to the dollmaker why she wants one more. After studying Mary and her dolls, the dollmaker agrees to make one for her as long as she’s willing to leave her other dolls with him for a week. At the end of the week, Mary returns to collect her new doll and receives a surprise!


The “surprise” isn’t much of a surprise to the readers because the “surprise doll” is shown on the cover of the book, but it’s a cute story about how people around the world have many things in common. What the dollmaker notices about Mary and her dolls is that Mary shares certain qualities with each doll, the ones listed in the dolls’ descriptions above. So, he makes a doll for Mary that looks just like her by using her other dolls and their shared features as models. Her new doll, Mary Jane, is an American doll, but she has features in common with Mary’s other dolls from around the world, just like children in America can share qualities with children in other places. It’s a soft message about diversity and finding common ground.