Jeanette Winter's Klara's New World
Book review by Monica Friedman
A Swedish Girl’s Immigration to America in the 19th Century
I really enjoyed this first person historical fiction for children, which provides detailed descriptions and a child’s eye view of the process of leaving one’s homeland and undertaking a long and arduous journey to a new land.
Klara’s family’s “little plot of land was poor and full of stones,” and “barely produced enough food for us to live on.” With no money and no food, the family is in serious danger of starving, and their options in Sweden, as peasants are limited. Seven-year-old Klara will have to become a servant to a local lord.
Fortunately, her father receives a letter from a friend who has found success and prosperity in America, inviting the family to come to him. After many nights of whispered conversations, they decide to sell all their possessions and make flat bread, salted herrings, salt pork, dried beef, cheese, butter, and dried apples, which will sustain them on the long trip, along with coffee, sugar, potatoes, “and brandy for sea sickness.”
As for their belongings, they can take only necessities: Papa’s tools, Mama’s sewing things, kitchen utensils, and the family Bible. They must even leave behind their Grandfather, who gives Klara one last thing to bring to the New World: seeds to plant in America.
The journey by sea, in a third class hold, is a mixture of cheerful optimism and frightening danger. There are games and music on deck, but there are also storms and sickness. “A little boy, only eight months old,” dies from a fever that afflicts the passengers and is buried at sea. They travel for two months, and Klara clutches her grandfather’s gift the whole time, until finally a blackbird lands on the ship’s railing and the passengers know America is near.
There is great excitement upon arrival and registration with the immigration authorities, especially when Papa brings, “fresh bread and sweet milk he had bought from street vendors, and fruits I had only heard about but never seen—oranges and bananas.” But Klara’s journey is not yet at an end. There are still three steamboats, a train, an oxcart, and a long walk to Papa’s friends cabin.
From there, Klara’s family clears some land, builds a cabin, and finally plants a crop. Papa even clears a garden for Klara to plant Grandfather’s seeds, and the flowers, blue gentians, bloom. At last, they can send a letter back home so their family in Sweden knows they’re all right, and Klara sends her Grandfather a flower.
With bold, detailed, and colorful illustrations, Klara's New World does a wonderful job of bringing Klara’s world to life. It’s easy to imagine the child’s perspective on all these strange new sights and sounds, along with her sense that she is safe among her family even as her environment changes over and over again. Her emotions are written clearly on her face in every picture: her interest as she helps prepare for their departure, her weariness when she first sees the blackbird.
Although it is a fictional story, Klara's New World provides a realistic picture of a journey taken by many children in the nineteenth century. An author’s note at the end of the book discusses the political situation in Sweden and some of the facts of the long journey immigrant families undertook to escape. Overall, this is a great perspective on the immigrant experience.
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