Shielding our Differences

The summer before my first year of full-time teaching in middle school literature and English, I looked over the textbooks I would be using. As a second-career teacher with no formal education courses behind me, I had no idea how to plan a unit, but I knew how to read and analyze a piece of literature, and more importantly (to me), I loved talking about literature. Friends had told me over the years that I made a book seem so exciting they couldn’t wait to read it. This is exactly what I wanted to do in my classroom: instill in 7th and 8th graders my love of reading.

In the 7th-grade literature anthology there was a short story called “Suzy and Leah” by Jane Yolen. It was very different from other short stories in the anthology. I hadn’t really seen anything like it before, and certainly not for young readers. The story is told from the perspectives of two different 7th grade girls as excerpts from their diaries. The story is laid out such that Suzy recounts the activities of a day in her life, and directly below that, Leah recounts the activities of the same day in her life.

These girls are polar opposites. Suzy is a white American born and living in Oswego, New York. She is pretty, blond, and popular. She has everything she has ever wanted, including a closet full of pretty dishes and a mother who prepares home-cooked meals every day.  One might say that Suzy is a spoiled brat with no idea what is going on outside of her own little bubble of a perfect life, which is not entirely her fault.

Leah is a Jewish refugee who has been sent to America with other Holocaust survivors. She has lost everything, her parents, her younger brother, her extended family, her family farm, her security. She has nothing of her own and is given Suzy’s hand-me-down clothing to wear. Because of her experiences in the concentration camp, she is terrified of everything and everyone. The Americans tell her she will be fine, but that is what the Nazis said as well – at first.

The conflict of this story is that Suzy has been assigned to be Leah’s buddy at school, to help her get oriented and learn English. Suzy is unhappy about this because of Leah’s sullen personality, which Suzy takes personally as she has no idea what Leah has been through. Suzy’s mother goes through Suzy’s closet and donates some of her older clothing to the refugee camp and as luck would have it, Leah wears Suzy’s favorite dress to school the first day. To add insult to injury, Suzy’s mother invites Leah over for dinner and instead of eating the food, Leah wraps it in her handkerchief and sticks it in her pocket. She is bringing food back to a young boy in the refugee camp who reminds her of her now-deceased brother. The climax of the story is that Leah falls ill and is rushed to surgery for a burst appendix. She nearly dies because she hides the pain so long, afraid that the same thing that happened to sick people in the concentration camps will happen to her if she admits she is sick. It is during her convalescence that Suzy reads Leah’s diary and begins to understand what Leah has been through and why she is so sullen. In response, and as an apology, Suzy brings her own diary to Leah in the hospital, so she can read it and see Suzy through her own eyes. It is through the willingness of the girls to share their fears and failings that they become friends, letting down their individual shields and getting to know each other, an important lesson for our world today.

Jane Yolen was once asked why she wrote “Suzy and Leah” and her response was that she wanted to write a Holocaust story for her young children to read, something that brought to life the horrors of what happened in Nazi Germany while setting the story in the safety of American soil. At my end of year survey, “Suzy and Leah” always ranks in the top three of things my 7th graders have read. It is a gateway piece of literature for further study of the Holocaust for my students as they mature.

The alternating diary excerpts and contrasting perspectives of the two girls is very compelling. Jane Yolen did a masterful job of developing the character and personality of the two girls in such a short space. She is a great storyteller. Not only that, this short story completely changed the way I view epistolary novels as I had previously not been a fan of the genre. For me, “Suzy and Leah” was a game-changer. Unfortunately, I don’t think it is available as a stand-alone piece of literature or as part of a collection of short stories that can be purchased. I’ve only been able to find it as part of the Prentice Hall Penguin anthology for 7th-grade literature, which is a great collection. If you can find it, I highly recommend you get to know “Suzy and Leah.”

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