Starred by The Canadian Children's Book Centre as "exceptional calibre."

Starred by The Canadian Children’s Book Centre as “exceptional calibre.”

A great review of Rachel’s Hope from the Jewish Book Council–

Jewish Book Council review of Rachel's Hope

Jewish Book Council review of Rachel’s Hope




Shelly Sanders has written the final volume of her ambitious Rachel trilogy, Rachel’s Hope (Second Story Press/Orca Books, 319 pp. $12.95), which has followed Rachel from her girlhood in Kishinev and the tragic experience of a horrendous pogrom, her dramatic escape with her family to Shanghai and as she begins a new life in America. Rachel has survived poverty, danger and hunger and the deaths of both her parents. Sustained by her loving sister and brother-in-law, she has reached San Francisco. Tenacious in her dream of becoming a writer, she attends night school after grueling days of menial labor as a domestic, all the while caring for her family and maintaining her desperate correspondence with Sergei, her gentile friend left behind in Russia. Her small triumphs are betrayed by the San Francisco earthquake, in which all her hard-earned possessions are lost.

But she perseveres and is rewarded. Rachel becomes a published journalist, is admitted to university and meets Alexander, who loves and understands her. She recognizes that “The past needs to be folded away…there is no room for past regret, only for today’s hope.”

Sanders’s historical note is a welcome addendum to this fine and absorbing trilogy. Ages 13-18.

Advanced Review – Uncorrected Proof
Booklist Online Exclusive: October 30, 2014
Rachel’s Hope.
Sanders, Shelly (Author)
Sep 2014. 288 p. Second Story, paperback, $12.95. (9781927583425).
Concluding the Rachel trilogy, Russian Jewish immigrant Rachel Paskar finally reaches San Francisco with sister Nucia, brother-in-law Jacob, and young ward Menachem. Though still mourning her parents’ deaths, and missing friend Sergei, Rachel maintains hope of furthering her education and becoming a
successful writer, despite struggles learning a new language and culture and living in poverty. Then she meets journalist and human-rights advocate Anna Strunsky, who provides friendship, inspiration, and opportunities. The 1906 earthquake brings new difficulties, including temporary homelessness; however,
progressively and with perseverance, Rachel looks towards a promising future for herself and her family.
Spanning 1905 to 1908, and interspersing Sergei’s story and his often tragic, violence-ridden experiences as a socialist revolutionary in Russia, the narrative has abundant details of daily life. At times dense and occasionally disjointed, with jumps in time and events, the story still does a good job of illustrating many
facets and challenges of immigrant life, including assimilation, work, self-fulfillment, and sense of home.
The series finale will resonate most with those familiar with the previous titles.
— Shelle Rosenfeld


(Published by Canadian Children’s Book Centre)

(The Rachel Trilogy, Book 3)

Second Story Press, 2014


Fiction|Jewish History|Russian History|Immigrant Stories

Rachel’s Hope is the third and final book in Sanders’ The Rachel Trilogy. Seventeen-year-old Rachel, a Jewish girl born in pre-revolutionary Russia, is now living in San Francisco and has dreams of going to school and becoming a writer. Three years earlier, she witnessed the death of her Christian friend, Mikhail, and the subsequent 1903 Kishinev pogrom that bathed her hometown in blood. Fleeing the anti-Semitic violence, Rachel travelled to China, leaving behind her Russian Orthodox friend, Sergei.

Having survived the journey from Russia to Shanghai and finally to California, Rachel and her family endure poverty and the back-breaking work to carve out a home for themselves. Rachel is inspired by Anna Strunsky, amongst other women activists and writers. Despite losing their meagre home in the 1906 earthquake that levelled San Francisco, she remains determined to go to school and to continue her career as a journalist. Back in Moscow, Sergei is involved in the fight for democracy and freedom of speech. But his work distributing illegal newspapers and preparing for revolution puts him at great risk of cruel reprisal from the Russian Tsarist regime.

In Rachel’s Hope, Sanders ably combines historical fact with a gripping fictional story, knitting together the grim realities of pre-revolutionary Russia and the plight of Russian Jews with the hopes and dreams of a young girl building her life. Through Rachel and Sergei’s eyes, readers are given a candid glimpse into both the immigrant experience in early America and life inside Tsarist Russia, which is teetering on the brink of revolution.

Inspired by the author’s grandmother, who survived a Russian pogrom and escaped to Shanghai and then to the United States, Rachel’s Hope is a must-read for fans of historical fiction. Delving into an underexplored period in history, the book includes a glossary as well as a detailed Historical Note

–Tracey Schindler

CM . . . . Volume XXI Number 4 . . . . September 26, 2014 ****/4

Rachel’s Hope is the final book in the “Rachel” trilogy. Like the first two books in the series, Rachel’s Secret and Rachel’s Promise, first time novelist Shelly Sanders delivers an exciting plot, an ambitious historical context, and engaging, complex characters.

This novel finds our heroine and what remains of her family struggling to eke out an existence in San Francisco. As in Shanghai, the only work these new immigrants are able to find is hard, menial and soul-destroying. But unlike Shanghai, and especially unlike the tiny Russian shtetl from which Rachel and her family fled following a pogram, life here in America holds out hope, even for Jews. The American dream is a reality and just might be attainable for those with a strong work ethic and plenty of courage and ambition. Rachel is enthralled and inspired. Finally her dreams and ambitions can take root. But first she must learn English.

Meanwhile Sergi’s deadly activities on behalf of workers’ rights in Tsarist Russia have forced him to flee St. Petersburg for Moscow. He is a wanted man. Sergi is tormented by guilt for his involvement in the assassination of a high ranking official and by the suffering of Russia’s people that seems to call out to him for action. With no plan but eluding the Tsar’s police, his only choice is to accept refuge with the revolutionaries and resume his revolutionary activities.

As time, geography, and wildly different life experiences keep Rachel and Sergi apart, the childhood friends continue to write to each other and muse about the ever fainter hope of reuniting. Sanders’ meticulous research recreates the exciting, diverse worlds of these two characters. Rich details – the modern American fashions Rachel longs for, Menahem changing his name to “Marty” to fit in better, an attack by a giant sturgeon found only in Siberia – all contribute to a strong sense of time and place. Sanders places her characters in the same room with important historical figures like Maxim Gorky and Emma Goldman. Her characters have front row seats on extraordinary events – the women’s suffrage movement, the San Francisco Earthquake, and an escape from a Siberian gulag.

Sanders has her finger on the zeitgeist of this era. She puts readers inside the head of a young and scared Russian revolutionary who starves for both bread and freedom. Through dialogue and character exposition, readers understand the complexities of the women’s suffrage movement. Her characters discuss and explore issues fundamental to all immigrants, but with a focus on the Jewish experience – are we safe? whom do we trust? can I be a Jew and an American?

These are questions Sergi would love to have the opportunity to answer. Tragically, as a young labourer in pre-revolution Russia, his entire life has been obligation and labour. Sergi’s pain and despair is palpable as he endures unspeakable abuse and hardship. Sanders handles this extreme material with honesty and sensitivity. Young readers will be exposed to truths without being bombarded by graphic detail.

While still very challenging, Rachel’s life has been much different. Over the course of the novel, Rachel becomes more American. Her English improves, she makes new friends and she cuts off her old-world, waist-long hair into a short, modern bob. Slowly, she begins to reap the benefits of her courage, ambition and passion for life. She has worked hard to become a journalist while maintaining her independence and the values she has carried with her from her homeland. In these ways, she is a genuine heroine.

Set in an era of great upheaval, social change and of such extreme significance for students today, this novel, this trilogy, is an ideal basis for inquiry based learning. Students will inevitably want to know more about the events and characters that form the backdrop of the “Rachel” trilogy.

Highly Recommended.

Charlotte Duggan is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.



That night, unable to sleep, she pictured herself as a fifty-year-old laundress, still toiling away in Shanghai. Rachel crept out of bed and left the room, clutching her empty stomach to curb the rumbling sounds. She made her way down the creaky stairs and out the door, moving toward a nearby streetlamp. Her felt shoes squashed down the mud, which stuck to her feet like clay. Night time had become her favorite part of the day, the only time when the streets were quiet, when even the animals seemed to close their mouths. Twisting her head to make sure she was alone, Rachel pulled the newspaper out from the waist of her skirt and started to read. 

Rachel’s Promise, the second book in a trilogy, picks up where Rachel’s Secret  ended. Rachel and her family have abandoned all hope of a safe and productive life in Russia following the murder of Rachel’s father during the infamous 1903 pogrom of Kishinev. The grieving family boards a train for far away Vladivostok where they will then travel by ship to Shanghai, China. Teenaged Rachel is filled with fear and trepidation, but she remains courageous and hopeful as leads her family towards a new and unknown future.
The pogrom at Kishinev has also propelled Sergei, Rachel’s gentile friend and secret romantic interest, to leave his family and abusive father. Knowing that his father stood by and watched as people were murdered and lives were destroyed fills Sergei with angry purpose and resolve. Sergi boards a train for St. Petersburg. There he will look for work, plan and save for the day he can reunite with Rachel in Shanghai or maybe America and avenge the deaths of the Jewish people in Kishinev.
Together, these two young people’s stories, told in alternating chapters, provide authentic, personal accounts of the daily life of Russia’s poor and oppressed during this volatile historical period. Like the first book in the trilogy, Rachel’s Promise has been meticulously researched. All the grim details of the gruelling three thousand mile, three week train journey that Rachel’s family endures have been captured here, as is the harrowing atmosphere of the five day sea voyage to Shanghai.
While Shanghai offers freedom and safety, there is little else here in this utterly foreign and inaccessible country for Jewish immigrants. Rachel and her sister work at menial, exhausting jobs while they attempt to save for their ultimate destination, America.
Meanwhile in St. Petersburg, Sergei seems to have exchanged one tormentor for another as he tries to eke out an existence in the harsh and dangerous world of a factory worker. Again, Sander’s commitment to historical accuracy is to be commended. The notorious St. Petersburg strikes, which ended in the Tsar’s troops opening fire on their own citizens, form the backdrop for Sergei’s new life. As he allies himself with the leaders in the factory workers’ struggle for better conditions, Sergei finds himself in the middle of a morally confusing terrorist plot.
The intense drama of each of these young people’s stories provides an opportunity for Sanders to explore some fundamental questions about life. While Sergei questions his course of action in his dark and desperate circumstances, Rachel questions the place of religion in the wake of her father’s murder. She tells her sister, “We have to make choices to do things that will improve our lives, instead of hoping for divine help that will never come.” The result of this exploration is a very satisfying story on many levels.
While their struggles may sound bleak and depressing, Sanders’ characters are anything but. Rachel is an intelligent, loving young woman. Her courage and determination are clear as she seeks out opportunities to become a writer despite the many obstacles in her path. And while Sergei’s struggle seems more desperate, he, too, inspires hope through his determination to do the right thing. Both Rachel and Sergei’s lives are filled with a wide variety of characters that complete the picture of the world Sanders has recreated.
Although not a challenging read, Rachel’s Promise is best suited to students with an interest in historical fiction. And while this story does stand on its own, most readers will enjoy it much more if they have read the first novel in the series, Rachel’s Secret.

Highly Recommended.


Sanders, Shelley. Rachel’s Promise. The Rachel Trilogy. Toronto: Second Story Press, 2013. 278 pp. $12.95. (9781927583142) Pbk. (9781927583159) Ebook. Gr. 7–10. Rachel’s Promise, the sequel to Rachel’s Secret, weaves parallel narratives of Rachel and Sergei. The story begins with Rachel, her sister Nucia, her mother, and Menahem, a young boy brought to Rachel’s care by Sergei, as they leave Russia and embark on their journey to Shanghai. (From there, they plan to emigrate to America.) When they enter Shanghai, Rachel’s mother is quarantined from the rest of the family due to illness. While trying to save money for passage to America, Rachel, Nucia and Menahem live in a boarding house with other Jewish immigrants. Rachel follows her dream of writing and starts submitting articles to a Jewish newspaper. She begins breaking away from Jewish traditions because she feels that these customs represent her former life in Russia. The story ends with Rachel, Nucia, Nucia’s husband, and Menahem traveling to America. Back in Russia, Sergei’s father loses his job as head of the police and has turned to drinking and bullying Sergei. Sergei leaves home and travels to St. Petersburg to look for work and to help support his family. He gets a job at a factory. Enraged by the unfair treatment of workers by the factory owners, Sergei joins a combative group of protesters and becomes an accomplice to the murder of a government official. Sergei is fearful of getting arrested for his part in the murder and also becomes disenchanted by the group’s violent ways. He then attends a peaceful demonstration where the czar’s army guns down protestors. The story ends with Sergei going into hiding and fleeing St. Petersburg. Sanders vividly describes the poor conditions of the factory workers while contrasting their lives with the extravagance of the czar’s castle and those of diplomats in St. Petersburg. In addition, she conveys information about the Jewish immigrant community in Shanghai during the early twentieth century. An historical note and glossary are included. Recommended for all libraries. Heather Lenson, Ratner Media & Technology Center, Jewish Education Center of Cleveland and editor of the Jewish Valuesfinder, Cleveland, OH


Review by Historical Novel Society

This is a wrenching story of a Russian-Jewish family fleeing the pogroms of the early 20th century, the second novel in a planned trilogy. Rachel’s father has been killed, and in this novel she and her mother and sister travel across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and on to Shanghai. Rachel leaves behind a young friend, Sergei, who despite being a Christian seems sympathetic to Rachel and her people. Sergei runs away from home, away from his father, a policeman, who takes part in the pogroms. The novel follows both young people in alternating chapters, fostering the impression that these two will somehow, in the third novel of the trilogy, find each other again. The reader looks forward to the next novel to continue the story, yet knowing that the story is only broken, not completed, somewhat weakens this as a stand-alone novel. Sanders combines her own family history with larger known historical events – the Russo-Japanese War, the organized strikes of pre-revolutionary Russia and the Jewish community that settled in Shanghai. The style, with its simple declarative sentences, makes this a fine choice for younger readers.

Charlotte Duggan is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.


Rachel’s Promise by Shelly Sanders (Second Story Press, 2013. Age 13+)
The second book of the Rachel Trilogy, Rachel’s Promise continues the story of Rachel and Sergei, two young people living in Russia, at least at the beginning of the nov- el. The final book of the series is scheduled for fall 2014. Shelly Sanders’ protagonists are two teens forced to grow up ear- ly, as the anti-Jewish violence in Russia escalates. Book 2 begins in summer 1903, with a quote from the Bessarabetz newspaper, dated June 18th of that year: “Become Christians and our brothers. If not, you have one year to go where you please. After that there must not re- main a single Jew in Russia….” The story opens with Rachel, who is Jewish, and her family as they start their journey across the country so that they can board a ship to Shang- hai. Sergei, meanwhile, is making a dangerous journey of his own, even though he is not Jewish. He leaves home in order to help support his family, becoming a worker in a fac- tory, which has many hazards in it- self, but he also becomes involved with the workers rebelling against their conditions, which puts him in even more danger. By the end of the novel, it is win- ter 1905. Life in Shanghai has given Rachel a chance to do work as a writer, something she has dreamed about doing, but the time there does not come without loss and hardship. Her journey from Shang- hai to San Francisco begins as the book ends, while Sergei considers emigrating to the United States as well, but decides to hold off, until “his work in Russia was done.”

Rachel’ books bring family’s Jewish past out of hiding by emma silvers, j. staff

 Rachel’s Promise

The year is 1903, and young Rachel is leaving Russia with what remains of her family, escaping the violent pogroms that took her father’s life. After a cross-country train ride to Shanghai — one of the closest safe havens for Jews at the time — the teen tries to adjust to life in China, finding a job at a Jewish newspaper to help support her mother and siblings while she dreams of moving to America.

It reads like historical fiction, but much of “Rachel’s Promise,” the second book in Shelly Sanders’ “The Rachel Trilogy,” is based on fact. Sanders’ grandmother Rachel eventually left Shanghai for San Francisco, enrolled at U.C. Berkeley and became the first Jewish woman to be accepted into the university’s science program, graduating in 1930.

Shelly Sanders

Shelly Sanders

But after marrying a Canadian man and settling in Montreal around World War II — when the area was rife with anti-Semitism — she gave up her Judaism entirely and hid it from her family for decades.

Sanders, who grew up without religion in Toronto and Illinois, found out about her grandmother’s heritage when the writer was 18 — four years after Rachel had passed away. “There are so many questions I never got to ask her,” says Sanders, who will speak to students Nov. 17 at S.F. Congregation Sherith Israel.

Sanders worked as a journalist for national outlets in Canada for 14 years before deciding to try her hand at writing a novel. “Rachel’s Secret,” the first in the trilogy, published last year, introduces the fiercely independent girl living in pre-revolutionary Russia as anti-Jewish violence is on the rise; her best friend is a Christian boy who must choose whether to go against his family to help her. The book was named a Notable Book for Teens this year by the Association of Jewish Libraries.

“It became especially important to me to know more about my ancestry when I had my first child,” explains Sanders, now 49 and a mother of three. Her own mother, who had learned about the family’s heritage when she was 24, didn’t have much information; she knew only that some of the family had died in the Holocaust and that no records existed of those who’d stayed behind in Russia. To get some answers, Sanders visited her grandmother’s sister, who was living in Montreal — and had married the son of a rabbi.

“I spent an entire day asking her questions about being Jewish, about living in Shanghai and about Russia,” says Sanders. “I left with about 20 pages of notes. It was so eye-opening, especially considering the [members of my family] who’d come back to Judaism.” (Those include her aunt and her brother, neither of whom were raised Jewish; both married Jews and are raising Jewish children.)

Using the infamous 1903 Kishinev pogrom as a jumping-off point, Sanders crafted a narrative based on her great-aunt’s stories as well as “tons” of research, using the New York Times’ digital archives about Shanghai around the turn of the century. She also delved into Russian literature, rediscovering her passion for Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and others in a quest “to get the cadence right, the way [the characters] would have spoken and written.”

As a journalist, getting the details right about life during the era was as important as “humanizing” historical events, she says. That commitment to historical accuracy is part of what is bringing Sanders from her home in suburban Toronto to San Francisco: The final installment of Rachel’s story will be set in the Bay Area, with the young woman establishing herself in San Francisco, learning English and joining Sherith Israel, which at the time had many Russian immigrant members. Sanders even plans to work in a plot point about Rachel writing something for The Emanu-El, J.’s predeccessor, which was founded in 1895.

Sanders also plans to visit the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley to gain insight into Californian Jewish history. One character she plans to introduce in her third book is the real-life Jewish journalist and social activist Anna Strunsky, who studied at Stanford and had an affair with Jack London; Rachel wants to be a writer, says Sanders, so she takes inspiration from the journalist.

Though Sanders isn’t religious, she says she’s studied Judaism and become close with a rabbi in her area as a result of researching her grandmother’s life. And while she’s saddened that the real-life Rachel felt she had to hide her Judaism for so long to survive, Sanders also understands it — and feels lucky that she’s in a position to pay tribute to her grandmother.

“When I travel and give talks and speak to book clubs, people always come up to me who are descendants of Russian Jews or of Holocaust victims and say, ‘I have a relative who hid their Judaism as well,’ and you realize how many people lived their lives that way out of fear,” she says. “And when you hear about what some of them went through, you understand it.

“Some people ask me what my grandmother would have thought about the book, about the character Rachel,” Sanders adds. “I like to think she would be grateful that you could live openly as a Jewish woman nowadays — and women in my family are doing that. I think she would be glad to know we’ve gotten to that point.”

Rachel’s Promise:

Sanders has once again written a gripping story set against real historical events.  She tells the story of the Russian Jews who managed to escape Russia under incredible odds to new lives filled with hardship in Shanghai.  Many of the characters in this story did exist.  I learned so much about a period of Russian history I knew little about.  Sanders beautifully balances the alternating stories of Sergei and Rachel, who are mere teenagers caught in the cross-fire of persecution during extreme political upheaval.  Her main characters are authentic, with each having a very distinct voice.  The book is a page-turner.

Patricia Tilton,

Notable Book for Teens, The 2013 Sydney Taylor Book Awards

Announced by the Association of Jewish Libraries

The Sydney Taylor Book Award honors new books for children and teens that exemplify the highest literary standards while authentically portraying the Jewish experience. The award memorializes Sydney Taylor, author of the classic All-of-a-Kind Family series.

Association of Jewish Libraries Reviews  (Sept./Oct. 2012)

Life is very hard for Jews in Kishinev, Russia in 1903. When fourteen-year-old Rachel witnesses a terrible crime—her Christian friend Mikhail being stabbed to death by his uncle and cousin—she is afraid to go to the authorities. She knows that no government official will believe a Jewish girl. The local Russian newspaper spews anti-Semitic propaganda, blaming the Jews for murdering Mikhail.

These lies help to fuel a terrible pogrom on Easter; the bishop and police do nothing to stop the violence. Rachel’s beloved father is murdered and their house, along with many others, is destroyed. Mikhail’s best friend, Sergei, cares about Rachel and tries to persuade his father, the police chief, to protect the Jewish families. Rachel has told Sergei what really happened to Mikhail, but since his father won’t help, she forces herself to testify about Mikhail’s true murderers. The story ends with Rachel and her remaining family boarding a train along with hundreds of others. They hope to escape to America, where they can live in peace and Rachel can pursue her dream of becoming a writer. Sergei promises Rachel to find her in America.

The well-written story gives readers a good portrayal of what life was like for Jews in pre-Revolutionary Russia. Rachel is a strong heroine with a loving family. She has growing feelings for Sergei, who is an example of a good Christian at this terrible time. The author’s vividly-drawn characters bring the historical period to life while personalizing the story.

The reader is kept in suspense about what Rachel will do with her terrible secret. The cover is not attentiongetting, but once the book is introduced, it can spark an excellent discussion about how prejudice happens and how it can be used to distort true facts.

Andrea Davidson, The Temple-Tifereth Israel, Beachwood, OH


Rachel’s Secret effectively uses the historical record to create a compelling image of this troubled period, making meaningful points about the role of hatred and hope in society–and how young people can break free from the shackles of tradition.”  –iTunes, Book of the Week, May 7-11                                                                                       

“Adeptly conveys the history, from Mikhail Rybachenko’s real name to the bitter bigotry and bloodbath…Critical for its underexplored subject.”  Kirkus Reviews 

The story was inspired by Sanders’ grandmother’s life in pre-Revolutionary Russia. The author’s strength is her powerful description giving attention to the small details that vividly illustrate early 20th-century Russia. The coachman’s black hat, for instance, is described as a stovepipe.  Her simple description of a boy, Sergei, drinking tea, shows the unique Russian way of sucking the drink through a sugar cube held between the teeth.

This powerful and educational story, geared toward teenage readers, continues Second Story Press’ strong tradition of publishing books with strong female characters for teenagers and young adults.

The Canadian Jewish News (May 4, 2012)

MANITOBA LIBRARY ASSOCIATION: March 9, 2012  Review by Charlotte Duggan (from Advance Reading Copy) ****/4


“Get on with you,” he shouted at Rachel. “As if you were going to spend money in here anyway. Get out of here, you Jewish pest!”
Rachel walked out of the store, her head held high, tears streaming down her face. As she hurried along the crowed sidewalks, faces blurred and her breathing accelerated. She knew that her black coat and shawl reflected her Jewish faith, her respect for tradition, and she wore them proudly, like a badge of honor. But after the shopkeeper’s hateful words, she felt like one of the animals on display in the market, to be sold and devoured. She stepped up her pace in order to get home before anyone saw the tears in her eyes.
Forging straight ahead, she didn’t see the group of girls lurking in the doorway of a boarded-up store until they were almost upon her. As Rachel walked past, they grabbed hold of her arm and kicked her in the shins.

The malicious attack described above is just the beginning of the horror that is about to explode in this novel set in Pre-Revolutionary Russia. What makes this attack most horrifying is that it is based on true events.

      In April 1903, the gentile citizens of Kishinev (including and possibly led by Catholic priests) turned on the Jewish community and massacred as many as fifty-one people. Hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed and many people were injured (Wikipedia contributors. “Kishinev pogrom.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 9 Jan. 2012. Web. 15. Jan. 2012). Through the eyes and experiences of 14-year-old Rachel, the only witness to a murder that is the supposed catalyst for the violence, Rachel’s Secret is a first-hand account of the Pogram of Kishinev.

      First-time novelist Shelly Sanders masterfully reconstructs life in early 20th century Russia. And the skillful integration of the small details of daily life (the food, clothing, dwellings and activities) into a plot that is about to boil over, makes for a very rich reading experience. In the context of growing anti-Semitism, Rachel keeps what she knows about the murder a secret, fearing the corrupt police force will not believe her and that Jews will be blamed. Her fears are well-founded. It is not long before routine assaults of Jews explode into the infamous massacre which takes the lives of 51 people. Rachel, her mother and sister survive, but Rachel’s father does not. In the aftermath of the massacre, Rachel struggles with both grief and guilt, believing that keeping what she knew about the murder a secret is what incited the violence. In the following weeks Rachel assumes a leadership role in her family and is ultimately able to lead her family to safety in America. Most importantly, Rachel steps forward to denounce the murderers. Rachel’s act of courage points the way forward for all who wonder how to stand up in the face of ignorance and racism.

      Sanders has created a terrific heroine in Rachel. She is feisty and independent, as well as warm and loving. Although Rachel’s dreams of being a writer in a bigger world set her apart from her sister and friends, Sanders has grounded her in realistic dialogue and authentic relationships. Another appealing aspect of this novel is the balanced perspective on the people of Kishinev provided through Rachel’s friendship with Sergei, a Christian. Sergei is horrified by his fellow citizens’ attitudes and behaviour, and he acts to prevent the violence and then to make amends in its aftermath. In fact, it is through Sergei’s disintegrating relationship with his own father, a policeman in a position to prevent the massacre, that readers gain insight to the psychology of racism.

      Rachel’s Secret would be an excellent addition to a middle school or junior high school study of racism. And although good storytelling is its most important feature, it is also a textbook example of the eight stages of genocide. For example, Sanders integrates the headlines from the newspapers of the day to illustrate the cunning effect of propaganda on people unwilling to ask more questions. Sanders should be commended for her ability to provide the shocking facts of this story while keeping her young adult audience in mind.

Highly Recommended.

Charlotte Duggan is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.To comment on this title or this review, send mail to

Published by The Manitoba Library Association ISSN 1201-9364 Hosted by the University of Manitoba.


Advanced Review – Uncorrected Proof

Issue: April 15, 2012

* Rachel’s Secret

Sanders, Shelly (Author)

Apr 2012. 256 p. Second Story, paperback, $12.95. (9781926920375).

When 14-year-old Rachel’s father prods her about her withdrawn behavior, she implores him, “If you had a secret but knew it could cause trouble if you told, what would you do?” Living under Russian rule in Kishinev in 1903, Rachel was one of the last people to see her Christian friend Mikhail alive when she

witnessed his murder at the hands of disgruntled relatives who stood to lose out on an inheritance. His

death is blamed on Jews, however, and a vicious pogrom is unleashed on the city. Rachel’s anguish about knowing what happened stems from a justified fear of not being believed if she comes forward, thus evoking more turmoil. She also harbors guilt that her somewhat risky friendship with a non-Jewish boy somehow triggered the calamity.

Basing the story on historical record, Sanders weaves a tale of catastrophe stemming from unbridled hatred, spreading of untruths, and lack of commitment to public safety on the part of officials. And while Rachel does act courageously and courtroom justice is meted out, virulent anti-Semitism still rules the day. In an artful way throughout this absorbing, chilling tale, characters wonder what can stop the tragedy of hatred from overcoming community, a question that will prompt readers to wonder the same.

— Anne O’Malley

VOYA (U.S. Educational Magazine–April issue)

Sanders, Shelly. Rachel’s Secret. Second Story Press, 2012. 256p. 262. $12.95 Trade pb. 978-1926920375.

Rachel, a Jewish teen, finds herself in the midst of the swirl of anti-Jewish propaganda that preceded the 1903 Easter riots in Kishinev, Russia. She has witnessed a horrible crime and fears reporting it to the authorities. She shares her secret only with her sister and Sergei, a Christian boy. This exciting story is inspired by actual events in the 1903 riots that left death and upheaval in the Jewish community.   Exchanges between Sergei and Rachel show the lack of understanding between the Christian community and the marginalized Jewish community, yet the common bond of adolescence links them. Both teens are torn between personal ambitions and responsibilities as members of a family or community.

This is an excellent candidate for a classroom study in social studies or language arts as well as individual reading for pleasure.  The conflicts portrayed in this episode span time and cultures. Several threads could be pursued to enrich the students’ understanding of conflicts regarding ethnicity, religion, and demonization of groups of people. The quotes from newspaper accounts in 1903 Russia are chilling in their lack of journalistic responsibility for publishing the truth.  The weaving of the personal with the historic is skillful and thought-provoking. This one is a must for a library servingyouth.  Hopefully, more books will follow from this author.—Marilyn Brien

QUILL & QUIRE (April 2012, Vol. 78, Number 3)

Rachel’s rebellion against expectations makes her instantly relatable for young readers, yet her story, set during the months surrounding the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, delves into much darker issues than most contemporary teens have to face. Rising anti-Semitism and political unrest are a part of her everyday life, and Rachel is forced to keep quiet about the identity of her Christian friend Mikhail’s killer in order to ensure her family’s safety.

The novel’s greatest strength lies in its careful blending of fact and fiction. Many of the events depicted are true: Mikhail’s murder and the subsequent scapegoating of the Jewish community for his death; the hateful rumours about Jews killing Christians for blood rituals; and the anti-Jewish riot that left 51 people dead, more than 400 injured, as well as 700 homes and 600 shops vandalized or destroyed.

An historical note at the end of the novel explains that Rachel’s life represents the typical experience of Jews living in Kishinev at the time. Author Shelly Sanders shrewdly uses the character to give young readers someone to identity with while reading about horrifying events, an approach that renders the information much more accessible.