An Immigrant Thanksgiving

Molly’s Pilgrim – written by Barbara Cohen, illustrated by Daniel Mark Duffy
Scholastic, 1998 (Revised edition); Original edition by Barbara Cohen, illustrated by Michael J. Deraney, HarperCollins, 1983

Molly is a Jewish immigrant girl living in a community where she stands out in a painful way. In this classic Thanksgiving story, Molly, called Malka by her Yiddish speaking mother, has left New York City’s Lower East Side to move to a small town where her father is better able to support their family.  She is lonely and alienated by the unfriendly atmosphere, and especially by the typical, but not less cruel, bullying of her classmates. Like some analogous books I have reviewed here and here, Molly’s Pilgrim is not only a story for Jewish children; it captures the difficult experience of immigrants regardless of their background, but also offers an optimistic picture of inclusion when a compassionate adult intervenes with an unforgettable lesson in both American civics and humanity. (This edition is marked as “revised.” I have ordered the original edition; when it arrives, I will post about whatever changes, perhaps in response to historical inaccuracies, have been made.)

The book, by the great writer Barbara Cohen, begins in Winter Hill, whose name evokes an idealized image of small-town life in early twentieth-century America. Elizabeth, Fay, and Emma, girls whose names probably do not represent English translations of the names used in their own homes, taunt Molly mercilessly. They are likely unaware that their nasty song evokes the antisemitic stereotypes associated with the violence in Eastern Europe which caused Molly’s parents to flee: “Jolly Molly/your eyes are awf’ly small/Jolly Molly/your nose is awf’ly tall.” Molly’s teacher, Miss Stickley, is not exactly a model for assertive protectiveness of her students; her intervention is limited to staring at the girls, temporarily causing them to stop their harassment.

When Molly reports to her mother the torment she is undergoing at school, the response is swift and unambiguous: “I’ll go to your school. I’ll talk to the teacher. She’ll make those paskudynaks stop teasing you.” (The author’s choice to leave this Yiddish term untranslated gives the conversation more authenticity. It means, in this context, a troublemaker.)

Molly is horrified. As almost any child who has been bullied knows, bringing the behavior to the attention of authorities may only make it worse.  But worse is, unfortunately, on the way. The class is learning about Thanksgiving, and Molly’s lack of familiarity with this holiday gives the mean girl a further pretext to punish her. (I do have one question here. If Molly had, like most Jewish immigrant children, attended public school in New York City, she would probably have learned about Thanksgiving.  Perhaps she was too young at the time.)

Evidently, Miss Stickley has a background in progressive education and projects-based learning, because she informs the class that, instead of just reading about Thanksgiving, they will construct a Pilgrim village. Her meticulous, not to say rigid, approach calls for the children to be assigned items to construct based on their seating arrangement: “If you sit in row one, two, or three, make a woman. If you sit in row four, five, or six, make a man.” 

Molly returns home, asking her mother for help in creating a Pilgrim woman out of a wooden clothespin.  Cohen captures the generational difference between the almost-acculturated Molly and her European mother.  At first, her mother is uncomprehending: “A clothespin? What kind of homework is a clothespin?” She has not attended school, but she knows that free public school in America is an incredible gift. (“In Goraduk, Jewish girls don’t go to school at all…They have to grow up ignorant, like donkeys.”). When Molly’s mother goes to great effort to support her daughter’s work, she creates a beautiful and intricate clothespin figure, modeled after her own experience:

She had dressed the doll in a long full red skirt, tiny black felt boots, and a bright yellow high-necked blouse. She had covered the yarn hair with a yellow kerchief. Embroidered with red flowers. But the doll isn’t a pilgrim.  In fact, it resembles the photograph of Molly’s mother as a child. When Molly explains to her mother who the historical Pilgrims had been, her mother accurately responds: “What’s a Pilgrim, shaynkeit? …A Pilgrim is someone who came here from the other side to find freedom. That’s me, Molly. I’m a Pilgrim!”

When Molly returns to school, the girls are more than ready to retaliate at her presumption. No doubt, they even recognize, at some level, the artistic superiority of Molly’s Pilgrim figure.  Not only does Elizabeth point out its inadequacy, she tries to terrorize her by claiming that Miss Stickley will be angry at Molly’s failure to follow the rules.  Finally, the teacher has been pushed too far.  Realizing that her passive approach has failed, she calls Elizabeth to account for her actions, and praises Molly’s Pilgrim to the whole class. Not only that, she validates Molly’s immigrant background, pointing out the connection between the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot and the Pilgrim’s celebration of abundance in their new home.

The teacher places Molly’s doll on her desk, the center of her lesson, a tangible reminder to xenophobes that immigrants are welcome in her classroom, and by implication, in our country. Miss Stickley pointedly includes both children and older immigrants, whose roots in their own culture will remain stronger throughout their lives as new Americans:

“ I’m going to put this beautiful doll on my desk….where everyone can see it all the time. It will remind us all that Pilgrims are still coming to America.   I’d like to meet your Mama, Molly. Please ask her to come to see me one day after school”

We never learn exactly what that visit will entail, but it represents a strong statement about immigration and assimilation. Many immigrant parents live in fear of their children making mistakes or failing to conform in their new environment.  Molly’s mother, instead, is a figure of dignity, whose contribution is acknowledged by her daughter’s teacher. This is a book for young readers  that could not be more relevant today.

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