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Touched by Fire by I. N. Watts

Watts, Irene N., Touched by Fire. Toronto: Tundra Books, 2013. Print.

In the first decade of the 20th century, Miriam Markovitz and her family have fled their small town in the country to live in Kiev. She and her family are Jewish and the Tsar does not favor Jews. After narrowly escaping the pogroms, Miriam’s father Sam dreams of taking the whole family to America. Known as the “Golden Land”, in America Jews are free of persecution.

     Over the next few years the family relocates to Berlin where Miriam’s parents and grandparents work hard to save enough money. The plan is for Sam to travel to New York ahead of the family. Miriam is fourteen years old when the first set of tickets to America arrives in the mail from her father. Leaving on the adventure of their lives, the Markovitz family must endure illnesses, family quarrels, and filth. For Miriam it seems crossing the ocean is the hardest thing she has very done, but she is destined to witness an even worse tragedy in her new country.

     Touched By Fire is an enlightening story that brings to light many of the injustices Jews were forced to face, long before the anti-Semitism of the Nazis’ era. It is easy to form an attachment to the characters, and I found myself hoping and worrying for the Markovitz family. Miriam is especially vivid and comes out clearly as a strong and self-sacrificing heroine.

These positive points aside, there were some peculiarities about this book that stood out in my mind. Firstly, Miriam’s journey is relatively tame, especially when you consider how graphic young adult literature has become. While there is a fair share of danger and hardship in the journey, Watts has left the harsher struggles to be faced by minor characters, leaving Miriam as merely a witness. I would also have liked more development of the characters Miriam met along the way. Leaving these characters underdeveloped reduced the impact of their struggles and made Miriam’s feelings about them somewhat flat. Finally, I must admit to some puzzlement as to why Watts chose to give the book the title Touched By Fire, as it refers strictly to the tragedy detailed in the conclusion, when most of the book’s focus is on Miriam’s journey and her maturation.

In considering these criticisms alongside the overall story, I found myself divided as to how I felt about the book. I have to conclude that younger readers may not be drawn to these inconsistences and nuances, but would rather enjoy the story for the picture it paints of the time period. I have therefore given the book three out four stars. Touched by Fire is most suitable for children ages 9-13 and would be enjoyed by young readers that enjoy historical fiction.

Recommended: 3 out of 4 stars
Reviewer: Hanne Pearce

Hanne Pearce has worked at the University of Alberta Libraries in various support staff positions since 2004 and is currently a Public Service Assistant at the Rutherford Humanities and Social Sciences Library. In 2010 she completed her MLIS at the University of Alberta. Aside from being an avid reader she has continuing interests in writing, photography, graphic design and knitting.