“Ripped Away” by Shirley Reva Vernick is a middle grade novel, almost a novella, really, at a bit over 100 pages, featuring first person narrator Abe Pearlman. In his very relatable, charming narrative he describes his lonely existence. He’s not in any school clubs nor does he play sports. And when he nods at Mitzi, a classmate he finds interesting, she can’t be bothered to respond with even a nod. As he walks through town on his way home from school, he sees a sign he had never noticed before, “Fortunes and Futures,” in the third story of a building. He decides to investigate.
What happens is that Abe ends up in 19th century London in the body of a boy named Asher. Asher works for someone who sells costume jewelry, and as they are getting ready to go home, his employer finds one of the murdered victims of Jack the Ripper. Abe finds that his classmate Mitzi has also mysteriously traveled to the past and lives in the apartment above his. She is now known as Maya, and she is blind. Both children were Jewish before their time travel and in this London of the past, they are Jewish kids who live with their widowed mothers. Asher’s mother works in a matchstick factory, and Maya’s uncle, with whom she and her mother live since the death of her father, is a Jewish butcher.
The only clues they have about how to get back to their present lives are what the fortune teller told them: that Abe knows he must save the life of someone, and Maya will take a journey on a boat. Abe has no idea whose life he is meant to save. One of the Ripper’s prospective victims? A random person in crowded London? Maya is equally desperate to return to her real life.
Vernick beautifully describes not only Victorian London, but also the living conditions of those Jews living in the poorer areas. In fact, Jews were discriminated against in Victorian London just as they were elsewhere; much of the public wanted to blame a Jew for the Jack the Ripper murders. Readers will become engaged quickly with the compelling narrative as Vernick effectively channels a young person’s style and makes the narrative compelling and real.
The Jack the Ripper mystery is not solved in the pages of this novel, just as it was not solved in real life. But Abe and Mitzi do manage to share some secrets they had been keeping, and we know that when they do return to their “real” lives, they will continue their budding friendship. This story will appeal to middle grade readers who enjoy historical fiction, and it will appeal to some as it’s a pretty quick read. Even reluctant readers might just be tempted to give this one a read. The very real depiction of discrimination and antisemitism rampant in the pages will resonate with readers and perhaps cause them to think about current events through that lens.
Please note: This review is based on the final, softcover book provided by the author for review purposes.