Friday, December 01, 2006

How Many Days to America?

by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Beth Peck.

“It was nice in our village. Till the night in October when the soldiers came.”

Here are the opening lines in this story of refugee immigration told by a small child whose family flees a Caribbean island in the middle of the night. Father insists they leave with nothing but a change of clothes and all the money and jewelry they own. Mama mourns the loss of the chair where she sat to nurse her children and the quilt her mother stitched by hand. They use her wedding ring and garnets to buy passage on a small boat full of other refugee families and set out on the open ocean. The boat’s engine fails soon after and they rig a sail from clothing. Men shoot at them from the cliffs of their own shore as they navigate away. For many days they drift and run short of food. At night mother rocks them in her arms and father sings of freedom. This is their only comfort. Thieves find them. They come to an unfriendly shore where soldiers throw them food but will not let them land. The family shares “two papayas, three lemons and a coconut with milk that tasted like flowers”.

At last they come to a new shore where people wait on the dock. Lines are thrown and the boat drawn in. They hear “Welcome to America!” Father wonders how they knew to be there to greet them. “Perhaps people come every day,” mother said. “Perhaps they understand how it is for us.” Low and behold it is Thanksgiving day and they join a celebration and feast.
On the flyleaf Eve Bunting says “I came to America myself as an immigrant from Ireland many years ago. I like to think that all strangers who come are welcomed as I was. And that life in the new land will be as good for them as it was for me.” I’d like to think that too, but of course it is not always true. I think fourth grade is a common year to study immigration and American Expansion. This is a good story that can easily be connected to current stories in the news of refugees coming to America. Not all of them are welcomed, certainly, but that is a good discussion to have with middle and upper grade students. It think it should be balanced with discussion of the Native Americans that were displaced by early immigrants – the Pilgrims’ arrival being not such good news for the Wampanoag Indians in actual fact.

My family can trace our line back to the Mayflower several times. I am the eleventh generation of my family here from England, although there are also more recent arrivals among my ancestors from Germany, Ireland and Scotland. My adopted sons of course have the African American experience, which is another more complicated discussion. Buddy Boys’ biological family includes American Blacks that presumably have a heritage including abduction from Africa and generations of slavery in America. He also has a Cuban American grandfather that may have been a refugee or simply an immigrant. I am sure Buddy is going to be very interested in learning about it as he gets older. I would love to someday meet his Cuban American Grandfather and hear his story. I pray Buddy has that opportunity.

I found Buntings’ story and the illustrations by Beth Peck to be moving and thought provoking. I would recommend this book as a discussion starter or study catalyst for students and families considering shared and divergent heritage in America. I offer it the week after Thanksgiving because I think it is so much more than just another Thanksgiving story.

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