Saturday, September 1, 2007


Written by Adele Geras
Harcourt, Inc.
Reviewed by Nancy L. Horner

Rachel couldn't sleep. The throbbing of the engines just below them, the creaking of old wood as the ship rolled over the water, snores, muffled tears and sniffs, crying children--they stopped her from sleeping. Some people slept: Mina, with her long, red hair hanging over the edge of the bunk; that nice, gentle Mr. Kaminsky, who, it was whispered, had survived the terrible pogrom in Kishinev, and who was setting out for America with a sack full of books and very little else; even Golda. And more surprisingly, Golda's baby. Rachel stared at the boards of the bunk above her. She couldn't see if her father was asleep. Did he dream dreams? I am frightened of my dreams, Rachel thought. I don't want to sleep because I am frightened of what I might see.

The year is 1904 and people are traveling to the United States in droves. Voyage tells the story of one group of Eastern European immigrants traveling across the Atlantic in steerage, willing to face miserable conditions in a dirty, overcrowded compartment for the chance to begin a new life. Each of the passengers in Voyage has his or her own reasons for emigrating: a family travels to join a father who has already moved to America and found a job; an elderly man who has survived the traumatic loss of his family goes to join his nephew; a young woman and her baby will be reunited with husband and father; a teenager whose parents have died escapes an arranged marriage. There’s a large cast of characters with a variety of reasons for moving to the U.S.

Throughout the journey, the passengers face hunger and thirst, calm and storms, illness and danger while dealing with the personalities and the growing stench of their fellow travelers. Their individual stories are told by way of thoughts and dialogue. As the journey progresses, the characters’ histories and plans slowly unfold, friendships develop, tempers flare and romance blossoms.

Voyage is a young adult novel, originally published in Great Britain in 1983. At a mere 145 pages, it’s surprising that the author managed to successfully reveal the histories of such a substantial number of characters. So many young women are introduced in the first few pages, in fact, that I felt compelled to write a list of characters to help differentiate between them. But, the further I read, the more distinctive the cast became. It grew more and more difficult to put the book down as I was swept into their lives.

Probably the biggest disappointment about the book is that Voyage only tells about the journey across the ocean. The reader is introduced to the passengers at the beginning of their passage on the fictional SS Danzig and it ends as they approach the United States with the Statue of Liberty in view. I would have much preferred a longer book that described their arrival and experiences as they met up with friends and loved ones or set out on their own to forge their new lives, rather than having to close the book and part with the characters before they reached shore. Voyage is, however, an excellent glimpse into an important part of American history that is often described merely in passing and gives the reader a feel for what this type of journey must have been like. Author Adele Geras nicely evokes all the senses; even the cover of the book helps set the scene. Voyage would make a particularly good addition to a history unit, but stands well on its own as an enjoyable work of fiction.

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