In spite of the “Afterword” being at book’s end, I feel like I need to begin this post with the final line: “I write this especially so that the story of Dina and her beloved, Johann, will be remembered by our family,” explains two-time Newbery Honor awardee Patricia Reilly Giff. That Dina was Giff’s great-grandmother, whose name she borrows for this book’s heroine.
“Much of this is fiction, of course,” Giff writes, “but her spirit is real, I hope.” Giff’s fictionalized family history is a resonating, inspiring homage to the tenacity of long-ago pioneers who boarded one-way vessels completely unsure of what was at journey’s end.
Giff’s grandmother was aptly named Christina (called Dina) Schütz. Her family name, in her native German, is derived from schützen, to protect. And indeed, Giff’s fictional Dina is truly one blessed with a veil of protection. Germany in 1870 is at war with neighboring France. Thirteen-year-old Dina and her family – who run a tailoring business – live on the German side of the Rhine River, her friend Elise just across on the French side.
Mischievous and headstrong, Dina wakes early one morning to meet Elise and exchange a hat pattern … and gets caught by German soldiers who insist she must be a spy. Dina manages to escape, but her safety is merely temporary as the soldiers intend to arrest her. In an unexpected twist of fate, Dina takes her older sister Katharina’s place on the ship bound for the U.S. Initially jealous of Katharina’s adventure, Dina now assumes her sister’s future.
Life in the new country is not at all what Dina expected: Brooklyn is dirty and soon enough sweltering, her promised ‘room-of-her-own’ is little more than an emptied pantry, her uncle is brusque at best and she’s constantly at odds with him .. and most of all, she realizes she has not left her life of tedious sewing behind. From one house of tailors, she has entered another. Still, her uncle’s new wife is sweet and caring, her baby cousin adorably irresistible, the once-frightening Mrs. Koch proves encouraging, and there’s that nice boy down the street. In spite of her dreams of someday returning home, Dina finds new strength and determination she never knew she had; and that Schutz– that veil of protection – which kept her safe in Germany, will someday soon also save her new American family, as well.
Readers: Young Adult