Review: The Ghosts of Rose Hill

The Ghosts of Rose Hill

by R.M. Romero

Peachtree Teen, 2022

Category: Young Adult
Reviewer: Evonne Marzouk

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The Ghosts of Rose Hill is a beautiful and magical story, told in verse that is as entrancing as the tale itself. Ilana’s parents, immigrants from Cuba and Prague, are desperate for her to be successful in America. So when her grades slip and PSAT scores don’t meet the goal, Ilana is sent from her home in Miami to live with her aunt in Prague for the summer. Away from her violin, parties, and her friends, her parents hope she’ll be able to focus better on studying and improving her test scores.

Instead, when Ilana discovers an overgrown Jewish cemetery behind her aunt’s cottage on Rose Hill, her summer becomes about clearing the cemetery… and though her aunt warns her not to speak to them, the ghosts she meets there. Benjamin, with blue eyes like the sea, befriends Ilana while she cares for the cemetery and shows her the secrets of Prague. Pearl is a young child with a dress the color of strawberries, lost during the war. Lior and Issur, twins, died of the flu in 1918.

Ilana also meets Rudolf Wassermann, a stranger with no shadow, who gives Ilana what she has been longing for most: a violin and music to play it. Unbeknownst to her, Wasserman is a vodník: a river spirit, a keeper of drowned souls … with few child ghosts remaining to feast upon, his eyes are on Ilana as a partner or captive. Ilana will need to claim her own passion for music, her own identity and courage as a heroine, and her commitment to living out her own human life in order to save the ghosts and herself.

Jewish imagery and memory combine with Czech folklore in this story about a Jewish girl discovering her own truth and the truth of her people. Though how she received her Jewish education is not described, Ilana is fully identified as Jewish. Hebrew words along with prayers and traditions are seamlessly interspersed in Ilana’s telling. She calls the graves she tends “matzevot” and is careful about Jewish rules for how to act in a cemetery. Messages about what happened in Prague during the Holocaust are similarly woven in.

Ilana’s aunt, who is not Jewish, is nonetheless “careful / not to mix meat / and dairy / or give me pig.” Though there are no Shabbat candles in her aunt’s home, Ilana creates “a mismatched set: / one made of beeswax, /the other white as the snow / I’ve never seen.” She lights both beside the window: “I move my hands / over the candles, / sweeping up their brilliance,/ drawing it into me.” Souls freed from the vodník – a character of Czech folklore – are returned to a very Jewish conception of the World to Come.

This fantasy, fully appropriate for the Jewish young adult audience and beyond, artfully integrates Jewish traditions and Jewish history. With its positive Jewish content and poetic telling of both modern and traditional stories, The Ghosts of Rose Hill is certainly worthy of consideration for the Sydney Taylor Award.

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Reviewer Evonne Marzouk received her B.A. in the Writing Seminars program of the Johns Hopkins University. Since 1999 she has worked professionally for the Environmental Protection Agency. As founder and director of Canfei Nesharim, Evonne created and distributed Torah teachings on the environment, and co-edited the 2014 book Uplifting People and Planet: Eighteen Essential Jewish Lessons on the Environment. Evonne’s first novel, The Prophetess, was published by Bancroft Press in 2019. Evonne was a touring author with the Jewish Book Council and has spoken to schools, Bat Mitzvah programs, synagogues, and book clubs about growing into all our gifts.