The time of the story is unspecified, but it’s probably the late 1800’s to judge from the illustrations. The unlabeled prologue establishes the loving, supportive relationship between Jessie and her grandmother, and it also indicates that Jessie knows how to sew. When the rabbi in town decides that Jessie will be the one to use his ticket to America, Jessie and her grandmother are distraught to be separated but are willing to believe it is for the best. What follows is a chronological sequence of stages in Jessie’s immigration story, with many leaps in time. Jessie undergoes an internal journey as well. She progresses from being all alone in a crowd of strangers in many different places—on board the ship, at Ellis Island, and on the Lower East Side—to finding her place with some new people she grows to love (one of whom she agrees to marry). At the end of the story, Jessie has saved enough money from her sewing jobs to pay for her grandmother to come over to America to join her.
This is a story that explores what it feels like to leave behind all that you know and love to start something new. Techniques used by both the illustrator and the author bring the reader inside Jessie’s head to experience her feelings. Italics are used by the author to indicate interior monologue and also Jessie’s written correspondence to her grandmother back home. Jessie’s sense of alienation comes alive for us as the illustrator shows us some scenes from her perspective, instead of making her a central figure in the pictures. In some, she is depicted from the back as a small figure in a corner– an insignificant, faceless person in a vast crowd.
This is the quintessential story of being an immigrant, but in his or her own way, every fourth grader has had some experience with feeling like an outsider in a crowd. That being said, if children do not already have background knowledge about immigration and Ellis Island, this will be a tough read. It works well as a read-aloud in a fourth grade immigration unit with children who have some familiarity with Ellis Island and the different reasons which lead people to leave their homeland.