“Someday We Will Fly” by Rachel DeWoskin is a fascinating account of Jewish refugees during WWII who escaped to Shanghai, one of the few places they could go without a visa. Not only is the setting unusual for a Holocaust story, main character Lillia and her family defy Jewish stereotypes — her parents are circus performers.
At the start of the book, the family is still in Poland, their home. Just before they are to take a train that will take the family to a ship where they will sail to China, Lillia’s mother disappears. She does not reappear before they must leave to get to safety. Lillia details the travels in first person narrative, and she describes the trials of her younger sister, Naomi, who is not developing normally — not crawling or talking.
In China, Lillia attends school and befriends a Chinese boy, Wei. Her father is unable to find work and they must rely on the charity of Jewish organizations. Lillia eventually manages to make some money performing at a “gentlemen’s club,” which would be forbidden if her father knew about it.
The story is realistic, and Lillia is not always an admirable main character. She steals at various times in the story, and some of that theft has terrible consequences for another character in the story. In a discussion format, this would be a great question for teenagers to ponder: Is it ever all right to be dishonest? To steal? To lie?
An interesting note is that the author describes what life was really like in Shanghai during that time for those refugees arriving from Europe with no money or valuables. When visiting Shanghai, travelers can see the Jewish museum, which shows the synagogue and photos from that time but does not explain the extreme hardship that those refugees experienced. In “Someday We Will Fly,” DeWoskin makes the hardships painfully real: the disease, the hunger, the lack of clean water and bathroom facilities. DeWoskin is unflinching in the realistic and harsh descriptions of the circumstances of both refugees and the inhabitants in Shanghai.
While there are several different threads to the plot — the journey to Shanghai, Lillia’s schooling, her mother’s absence, her sister’s development, the Jewish plight, Lillia’s puppet-making — the overall story is compelling and eminently readable.
This is a great choice for a book club or a class group — there is much to discuss, and many questions about morals and life will arise. Perfect for middle school readers and older readers.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, Viking, for review purposes.