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Non-Fiction Monday: Shutting Out the Sky by Deborah Hopkinson

Today is Non-Fiction Monday—and my first time participating. The host for this week’s round-up is The Miss Rumphius Effect.

We are literature-based homeschoolers, and my son has been using a Winter Promise course this year called ‘American Culture.' We have BOTH loved it. Right now he is learning all about the Stock Market Crash of 1929, but recently he learned about immigration and the living conditions in New York City during the late 1800s and early 1900s. One of the core texts for this section was Deborah Hopkinson’s fabulous book, Shutting Out the Sky.

Shutting Out the Sky by Deborah Hopkinson

  • Reading level: Ages 9-12

  • Hardcover: 144 pages

  • Publisher: Orchard; 1St Edition edition (October 1, 2003)

  • Language: English

  • ISBN-10: 0439375908

  • ISBN-13: 978-0439375900

Deborah Hopkinson truly captured the immigration experience in her book. She used original writings from immigrants, and the story is told through those ‘voices’ from the past, featuring two women and three men from the countries of Belarus, Italy, Lithuania, and Romania. Those individuals came to America between the years of 1891 and 1901, and their ages at the time of immigration ranged from twelve to sixteen. Most came with family; one came alone.

Of course, I have studied about immigration in the past, but Hopkinson’s book certainly made an impression on me. As I read about the living conditions, sights, sounds, and smells of the tenements on the Lower East Side of New York City at this time in history, I was appalled and my sympathies stirred. My heart especially went out to the mothers who tried to make their home in one small room of an overcrowded building in a strange city. Most had no grasp of the language and even less money. Add to that a lack of good sanitary conditions, and you have a recipe for possible hopelessness.

Most immigrants came to America searching for a better life. They believed they were leaving behind poverty and persecution, and they sacrificed to get to the ‘promised land.’ Many were told that gold was scattered in the street, and all they needed was a shovel and a sack! Of course, this ‘golden land’ sounded like paradise.

Yet, they had no idea what actually lay ahead. Would they have still come if they had known? I believe that, yes, most would have. Because although the parents had a hard time adjusting and the conditions were deplorable, the children adapted more easily. Many had the opportunity to receive an education that had been denied them in the past and a chance to change the course of their lives in the future. Mothers and fathers were willing to sacrifice for their children, and in the end, that is what mattered.

Hopkinson has interwoven the ‘voices’ of the immigrants to create a complex, yet compelling, book. Yes, she does tell about the poverty, overcrowding, and unsanitary conditions; but she also emphasizes the indomitable human spirit and the importance of family ties and traditions.

The photographs are a huge part of this book, and Hopkinson has chosen well. As we all know, a picture is worth a thousand words, and the photos of immigrant families crowded into small rooms, or the countless lines of laundry strung between tenement buildings should make us all thankful for what we have. America has truly been the land of opportunity, and I have great respect for the men and women who worked, scrimped, saved and determined to make better lives for themselves and their descendants.

My favorite paragraph in the book was about young Leonard Covello. When it was time for his family to leave Italy for America, he tiptoed into his grandmother’s room to say goodbye. He understood he’d never see her again, so he always remembered the words she whispered in his nine-year-old ears. She told him that the gold he would find in America would not be in the streets, but in the dreams he would realize—the golden dreams of the future.

If you visit Deborah Hopkinson’s website, you will find links and lesson plans to go along with Shutting Out the Sky.

This book is a fantastic historical resource, yet it touches the heart as well. Highly recommended!

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