For fifth-grader Ruthie Mizrahi, New York City in the 1960s can be an overwhelming place. She’s grateful her family was able to flee Castro’s Cuba and find refuge in America, but she misses many things about her old home. And she’s tired of being stuck in “the dumb class” at school. But the situation is improving: As the story begins, she finally gets a chance to be promoted to the regular class; and her father has just bought a new car for the whole family, and new go-go boots for her.
But just as things are looking brighter, an accident leaves Ruthie in a body cast and bedridden for months. What she doesn’t expect is that her seemingly hopeless condition will bring her opportunities to meet some wonderful new people, try things she’s never tried before, and even discover what she wants to do with her life.
Ruth Behar’s semi-autobiographical novel, “Lucky Broken Girl,” conveys a commendably positive attitude, and though the writing is sometimes simplistic, younger middle-schoolers probably won’t mind too much. Ruthie understandably goes through times of great sadness, fear, and guilt for feeling like a burden to those around her, but her strong spirit and the support of her family, neighbors, and friends ultimately carry her through.
Though at first she can feel nothing but hatred for the boy who caused the accident and was killed in it, she gradually learns to pity and forgive him. She also comes to forgive a friend who neglects to visit her during her confinement, and to understand that even good people can make mistakes. Additionally, Ruthie’s condition gives those around her a chance to show self-sacrificial love and generosity.
The book’s ideas about religion are more ambiguous. Though Ruthie’s family is Jewish (we learn that her grandmother escaped Nazi Germany), they don’t practice their religion most of the time. But Ruthie starts praying more after her accident. However, she starts praying to different gods and other figures — not just the God of her own religion, but also the god Shiva (after her friend Ramu gives her a figure of him on a pendant) and Frida Kahlo, the artist that her neighbor Chicho tells her about. Ruthie’s logic is that because America has freedom of religion, it’s fine to pray to anyone.
There are also some cultural ideas on display that might bother younger readers — mainly, Ruthie’s father’s ideas about what is due to him as the man of the family. He has extremely high expectations of his family and explodes when they’re not met. His wife and children walk on eggshells to keep from offending him, and feel miserable when he gets angry anyway. He also forbids his son from kissing him, saying that it’s not masculine.
These traits are mostly seen in the first part of the book; later, when Ruthie is bedridden, we see less of her father’s temper (and less of him altogether). He does have some very kind and affectionate moments, but his bullying behavior, while somewhat predictable given the era and his cultural background, can be disturbing to read about, especially when Ruthie’s mother is shown to be intimidated and hurt by it. Ruthie’s friend Danielle is a child of divorce and believes that no father at all is better than a bad one; we don’t hear Ruthie’s feelings on that subject, but she does love her father despite his shortcomings.
These are the only major content issues, aside from occasional non-explicit references to violence and the death of a minor character in another accident. There are many things to like about “Lucky Broken Girl,” even though there are also some things to be concerned about.
Image copyright Nancy Paulsen Books. Review copy obtained from the publisher.