No Vacancy – by Tziporah Cohen, Groundwood Books, 2020
Miriam Brockman is an eleven-year-old New Yorker who has just been exiled to upstate New York. Out of a job, her father has purchased the run-down Jewel Motor Inn in the town of Greenvale, population 514, intending to build up a viable source of income for their family. Not exactly a dream come true for Miriam, the situation seems somewhat more hopeful when she quickly makes friends with Kate, whose grandparents run the diner next door to the Brockman’s new home and workplace. Miriam is Jewish, Kate is Catholic, and together they devise a scheme to save the motel. Readers might be surprised to learn that this plot involves a vision of the Virgin Mary, but less surprised that questions of ethnic and religious identity, as well as family conflicts, emerge in this engaging story.
One of the most interesting aspects of the books is the care with which the author characterizes the particular religious culture of each family. Miriam’s family observes Shabbat with a special dinner but little ritual. When they attend synagogue, they drive there, and, although they refrain from eating certain foods which are not kosher, they happily eat in non-kosher restaurants. When Miriam’s Uncle Mordy arrives, his level of observance is much more traditional, quite different from his extended family’s. Kate and her family attend church weekly, but apparently Kate only confesses to a priest at Easter time. In other words, there are contradictions in both families. Where some readers might see inconsistencies, to me they seemed internally consistent with the characters’ lives. When the Virgin Mary project develops, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but within a narrative where Miriam is constantly questioning what it means to be Jewish and how secure she feels in publicizing her identity.
A sub-plot involves Miriam’s friendship with María, a young Mexican-American woman who both teaches Miriam Spanish and offers her the emotional support of an older sister. (I was also impressed that the author was careful to check the Spanish for accuracy.) Cohen takes care to provide perspective about each individual’s personal struggles. While Miriam relates to a visitor to the motel who has a disability partly because of a phobia which makes her own life difficult, the two challenges are presented as parallel, but not equivalent. All the characters’ vulnerabilities interact in the narrative: psychological, physical, financial, religious. Throughout the book, the author’s respect for young readers is apparent, as she encourages them to think about difficult and painful parts of growing up.
The book’s resolution does not seem inevitable. In fact, different readers may find it more or less plausible, given the environment where this Lourdes in the New York Finger Lakes takes place. The community seems close and accepting, but apparently not immune to the ugly specter of hatred. In the end, some readers may feel that the consequences of actions, ranging from destructive to unthinking, might have been more fully explored. But the novel’s ambiguities are evidence of the author’s serious attempt to raise difficult questions. A visit to the Jewel Motor Inn is definitely worth the trip.