Book Reviewed: The Year of Goodbyes – Debbie Levy, Disney Hyperion Books, 2010
The assumption that children and young adults will want to read poetry is reflected in the many recent books that present history and personal experience through verse to young readers. Some of these, such as Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming and Marilyn Nelson’s American Ace, successfully experiment with the boundaries between lyric and narrative, offering the reader a new way to enter the past. Debbie Levy’s The Year of Goodbyes is also an experiment, a profoundly moving one, in combining documents, conversations, and original poems to make the sorrows of the Holocaust individual and real.
In the book’s introduction, Levy (also the author of a children’s biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg) explains the structure of the book through the custom of the poesiealbum, a volume something like autograph books, “but…much more serious enterprises,” which students collected, inscribed, and exchanged with their friends in the Germany of the 1930s, from which her mother became a refugee. Reproducing translations of actual entries from these books, images, and interweaving her own poems, Levy has attempted to capture the fear and confusion of a young girl about to be uprooted from the only world that she knew. Levy creates a complete world, bookended between her introduction and a detailed afterward, along with a time line, photos, and bibliography. The Year of Goodbyes needs to be experienced in this context in order to appreciate the depth of what Levy has accomplished.
“It is January 1938.
I am Jutta Salzberg,
a Jewish girl
in the city of Hamburg,
between the Elbe and Auster rivers,
in the north of Germany.”
The tone of this introductory section establishes that Jutta’s voice will be clear, honest, and matter-of-fact, as she shares her affection for friends and family and her disbelief at the hatred that now confronts them. She is an ordinary girl confronting extraordinary evil. Levy allows her to convey these contradictions in her own words:
I am not so great a student in Hebrew,
a class we must take in our school.
I am not so great in penmanship.
I am not good at piano,
even though I am the daughter of a pianist,
I am a picky eater.”
The frustration of a child in school, the inability to live up to others’ expectation, the small personal detail, all make Jutta available to the reader. Yet she uses the same quiet tone to reveal how her life is being threatened with destruction:
“And my father
walks over to the window
of the man’s office.
Father opens the window.
It’s cold outside:
we don’t need fresh air.
As Father looks down to the sidewalk,
below this nice office,
he tells the surprised American official
that if he must wait longer for visas,
he might as well jump out the window.”
This is not prose rearranged with line breaks, but a portrait in carefully chosen images and deadly repetition of Jutta’s father, a man facing hell, “far below,/below, below.” The ironic bitterness of “this nice office,” along with the passivity of the nameless bureaucrat, express Jutta’s torment in a way in which young readers will understand without patronizing them or simplifying her emotions.
Along with being an unforgettable testament of an era receding into the past for many readers, it is also the perfect vehicle for expanding the way that children think about poetry and history. The Year of Goodbyes deserves the attention it demands of us.