Touched by Fire (2013), by Irene N. Watts

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 19.3.

Watts-FireTouched by Fire is the most recent in a long line of powerfully moving stories told by Irene N. Watts. Like Goodnight, Marianne (1998) and its sequels Remember Me (2000) and Finding Sophie (2002), Touched by Fire recounts the experiences of the Jewish communities persecuted before and during the Second World War. In Touched by Fire, Miriam’s family flee the pogroms in their village, and start a new life in Kiev. As the persecution of the Jews grows worse, Miriam’s father emigrates to America, promising to send for his family, to bring them to the “Golden Land” (7) and freedom. Through unforeseen circumstances, Miriam must travel alone to meet her father, leaving her mother, brother, baby sister, and grandparents behind.

Watts’s description of the hardships Miriam endures—travelling alone to a foreign land, braving the immigration procedures on Ellis Island, and trying to find work in a new, English-speaking city—are balanced between the threatening possibilities and a more idealistic view of events. Miriam’s positive attitude earns her friends, who in turn help her to find a job at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Readers will almost certainly be unaware of the 1911 tragedy, in which 146 of the company’s employees died in a fire. The fire was one of the worst industrial accidents in American history, and for Miriam, brings back memories of the screams, the flames, the fear, when the Cossacks burned her family’s home and village. Watts places Miriam firmly in the middle of the tragedy, and we are caught there with her. We see only what she sees; we feel her panic, her fear, as the building burns and many of her co-workers jump to their deaths, unable to escape the flames.

Watts has a talent for expressing the seemingly inexpressible in a way that young readers can comprehend. Even through the calamity and its aftermath, when readers feel the trauma Miriam experiences as she waits for news of her friends, Watts’s characters exude a strength that readers will see and be comforted by.

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