The Night Journey

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by Kathryn Lasky. Novel. 160 pages. Grades 4-7.
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Review

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A terrifying escape is the central plot of Kathryn Lasky's The Night Journey. Nana Sashie has a story to tell and it's her great-granddaughter, Rachel, who hears it. Rachel's assignment of keeping Nana Sashie company is, at first, a chore for the thirteen year old. Her mother and grandmother love Nana Sashie but treat her as something fragile, not wanting to see her saddened by remembering other times. Little by little the story is told to Rachel, often in the middle of the night and there is a strong contrast between Rachel's current life and the life recreated by her great grandmother. Sashie's family escaped from Russia rather than serve in the Czar's army or be annihilated in one of the pogroms and the ruse they used was one devised by Sashie, a young child at the time. When, at last, Sashie's story is told, she dies knowing that her story has been passed on and understood by a future generation.

Sashie's role in her family at the turn of the century is not a typical female role and, even in the present day, it is Sashie who can master the intricacies of some of the household needs. In the past as today she was bright and spunky and respected by her family. Using the cover of the festival of Purim, Sashie's family, after being transported underneath crates of live chickens, manages to get from village to village, ever farther from their home.

The characters of Rachel and Sashie dominate the book, but it is haunted by another character, Wolf. This man with eyes that frighten all who glance his way is a recluse in the time of the escape. People know he is the sole survivor of a village destroyed by the Czar's armies, but they fear the man and shun him. They refer to him as "the living dead." It is Wolf, however, who functions as an unlikely savior and helps the family escape.

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Things to Talk About and Notice

  • There's so much to talk about and think about in this book. First, of course, as in any good story, there are the characters. Each member of Sashie's family had a role to play in the escape. Without each person's cooperation, the plot would fail and they would be captured and probably killed.

  • Talking about why Wolf did what he did with his own family and with Sashie's could delve into such themes as cowardice and bravery. Why was the discovery of the dead squirrels so important? What did it mean? Why did Sashie wait to tell Rachel about it in the letter to be read after her death?

  • Rachel, at the time of this book, is almost the same age Sashie was during her story. Both were at the threshhold of becoming a woman. The contrast between Rachel's life and Sashie's then and now is strong and touching.

  • Each person in Sashie's family choses one thing to take with them. The samovar, symbol of their family and the source, not only of tea but of sociability and solace, is taken apart and brought out in separate pieces, one of which Rachel finds in their cellar. What would you take?

  • This is a strong book with a serious theme, but there is much joy in the book. Concentrate a bit on how the author did that. Why did she use Rachel as a vehicle for the story? Why not just tell us Sashie's story? What is the author's message here? What will you take from the story? Who is the character you will remember longest?
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Activities

  • You'll need to find out about Purim, of course, what it is and why it is celebrated and how it is celebrated today.

  • There is a paradox here: the family's Jewishness is the reason why they had to flee but it is also the reason why they survived. The pogroms and the Holocaust will surely be a topic for research and discussion.

  • The book is full of references to food. You'll need to find someone who can at least tell you about the different foods, especially the cookies that hid the gold. Locate or make some of them and have a tasting party of these and other foods from the book.

  • There are references in the book to such disparate personages as Nicholas and Alexandra, Debbie Reynolds and Barbra Streisand as well as the play "Oklahoma". Students might want to know more about them.

  • "Fiddler on the Roof" is set in approximately the same time and place as Night Journey. At least, play the record; at most, put on a performance of a scene from it.
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Related Books

  • Number the Stars cover This book contrasts nicely with another Featured Book: Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. You'll want to trace some of the parallels. The time is different but the problem is the same and the working together of a family in order to escape is very similar. Read our Featured Book Teachers' Guide for this book including discussion ideas, classroom activities, related books and links.

  • cover art The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly. (2009, Holt. ISBN 9780805088410. Order Info.) Novel. 340 pages. Gr 4-8.
    Set in 1899 Texas this is the coming of age story of Calpurnia, the lone daughter in a family with six brothers. She longs to be a naturalist and is fascinated by the development of species while the gender roles set out for her continually thwart the discovery of her ambitions in science. Read More.

  • cover art The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco. (1988, Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0671649639. Order Info.) Picture Book. 32 pages. Gr K-3.
    A Russian immigrant mother and family arrive in the United States. She plans to make a quilt from a basket of old clothes, telling her daughter, "It will be like having the family in backhome Russia dance around us at night." The quilt is passed along from mother to daughter for four generations. It becomes a Sabbath tablecloth and a wedding canopy. When it becomes a blanket for new generations of children, it really tells a family's story of love, faith and endurance. Read Our Featured Book Teachers' Guide for this book including discussion ideas, classroom activities, related books and links.

  • cover art Keeper of the Doves by Betsy Byars. (2002, Viking. ISBN 0670035769. Order Info.) Novel. 112 pages. Gr 4-7.
    Keeper of the Doves is the deceptively simple story of one turn of the century family during one summer. Accessible to kids from fourth grade up, it speaks gently but packs a punch. The story revolves around words and their power to wound as well as heal. There are six sisters in the McBee family. The indistinguishable twins, Arabella and Annabella, are grouped together at all times by a single name, The Bellas. They delight in terrifying their sister Amie, our narrator, with their stories and often cruel games. Many of their games and stories concern Mr. Tominsky, a mysterious man who lives in a chapel at the back of the estate. The tale is dominated by that man who is largely off-stage. He's the Keeper of the Doves. Read our Featured Book Teachers' Guide with activities, related books and links.

  • Stotts, Stuart. Books in a Box: Lutie Stearns and the Traveling Libraries of Wisconsin (Big Valley Press, 2005 ISBN 0976537206. Order Info.
    A quiet fictionalized biography about the work of Lutie Stearns in bringing boxed sets of books which circulated from town to town around the turn of the century providing the first free libraries many communities had ever had access to. A good nonfiction companion to novels and picture books set in this time period.
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