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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A Review of "Bessie's Pillow, A Young Immigrant's Journey"

Can you imagine being 18 years old and immigrating to a new country, alone? That's exactly what happened to Bessie Markman in the book Bessie's Pillow. Her granddaughter, Linda Silbert, is the author and owner (with her husband) of Strong Learning, Inc., a tutoring and publishing company in New York. Dr. Linda wrote this book after listening to recorded interviews between Bessie and her daughter Ann Bress (Linda's mother). She was generous enough to send us and other Homeschool Review Crew members a copy of her book to read and review.

Jewish stories

What is Bessie's Pillow about?

This story begins in the year 1906 in Lithuania. The Markman family has arranged to send their daughter, Boshka, to America. Jewish persecution is expanding, and Bessie's older sister has already left the country and sent letters about her successful new life. The story is written in first person, and almost feels like a journal. The reader travels with Bessie as she journeys to America, finds a home, employment, and is determined to make a new life for herself. You'll understand her thoughts and feelings as she struggles with what news to share with her parents, decides who she can trust, and falls in love. And of course you'll discover what the pillow has to do with the story! Readers will also learn many things about New York  in the early 20th century. Bessie notices that she is more privileged than many other people and is grateful for that, but never lets it affect her and attempts to improve the lives of others all around her in any way that she can. You'll experience heartbreak and joy with Bessie as she begins her family and creates a good life for her descendants in this new country.

Why did we want to read Bessie's Pillow?

Did you know that we are promised that if we help our ancestors by finding out who they are, learning about them, recording their memories, and assisting them in many other ways that we will be protected from the influence of evil? In my family we take that promise very seriously and enjoy learning about our ancestors through genealogy, family histories, and other similar efforts. We love learning about where we came from, what our progenitors have gone through, and connecting the branches our family tree. This unites our family in so many ways.

Reading the histories of other families unites us with people around us. When we learn about the struggles and triumphs of people in the past, we feel more sympathy for them and for people near us who may have similar situations today. Despite differences in religion, education, location, and more, we feel connected to each other and desire to show love and compassion to everyone. Bessie's Pillow helped me understand the struggles that immigrants and Jews went through in the early 20th century. It also helped me see what a difficult yet exciting time period that was!

Educational resources available with the book:

Readers will appreciate the extra information included in the back of the printed book and on the author's website at Bessie's America. You will find a treasure trove of topics mentioned in the book and links to further acquaint yourself with  those subjects. I loved exploring this section of the website.

historical fiction

The website also includes a For Teachers section which includes a Teacher Guide to help classes and groups use the book as a study reference. There are character analyses, discussion questions, symbols, themes, and history topics and events. It also includes a timeline of Bessie's life events and other events in American History, as well as four pages of recommended books about immigration. What an incredible resource! My favorite portion of the guide is the glossary of terms, which I found very helpful for explaining many of the words my young readers and I were not familiar with, especially Jewish terms. With this glossary, even my 3rd grade daughter would be able to read the story. This Teacher Guide has the pages sized just right so that it can be printed in "booklet" form without wasting space on the paper.

The website also includes discussion questions for readers who choose to read the story with a book club. The Bessie's America website and Teachers' Guide are written for middle and high school students, but much of this guide was helpful to my elementary children as well.

How did we use Bessie's Pillow?

I read the book first, to see how dramatically some of the topics had been written about, and what I might have to explain. The book includes mention of the humiliating immigrant inspections in Germany, drafting of young men in Lithuania and their placement at the front of the fighting, abuse, rape, torture, and disease. But every single topic was written about in a tasteful and respectful way, and I did not worry at all about my older children reading this book on their own. I did warn them what they would encounter and explained some things up front, as I do with everything in life. I have also been reading this book aloud to all of my children, and do not skip over parts because of the family friendly way it is written. The book is very clean and I am not concerned at all about reading it to my family.


My 8th grade daughter read the book in two days, and I asked her to give me a short review of it.

"In Bessie's Pillow I learned about how badly the Jews were treated, even in richer Jewish families like Bessie's. I learned about how hard it was for people to find a good job once they came to America. I learned how hard their lives could still be, even after they found a good job. I learned so much about Bessie's time period, what people did, who the presidents were, the advances in technology, the theaters and the dances, and even some popular foods. I learned about the problems with health and why lots of people passed away in her time. I think it is a great family book, although there are a couple of parts that will probably need to be explained to younger children. I really like this book. It was extremely interesting and now I want to learn more about the lives of the people in Bessie's time period. "

As a family we have discussed some things we've learned about in our other studies that were also mentioned in the book or in Bessie's America such as steamships, vaudeville, Yiddish theater, suffrage, ragtime, silent films, and Thomas Paine. We've also noticed the similarities between Bessie and people we've studied, such as Philip Glass's parents from Lithuania, and George Gershwin's parents from Ukraine, both families who were Jewish and emigrated for the same reasons.

We even looked up an authentic Eastern European Jewish recipe for cherry blintzes topped with sour cream, which was something that Bessie enjoyed eating. We really enjoyed them too!

cherry blintzes with sour cream

I realized that this review is pretty long for a book review, but I hope you noticed how much we love the book! Bessie was an amazing person. She made a point of helping every person she could because she understood life's struggles and how blessed her life had been despite her trials. I love the examples of kindness, caring, and persevering that her story portrays and am so thankful that we were able to receive this book. It has become a favorite in our home!

Bessie's Pillow is available in print or for Kindle through the website.


Where to find Bessie's Pillow:

Strong Learning, Inc.

Bessie's Pillow {Strong Learning, Inc. Reviews}

Crew Disclaimer


  1. Your daughter read this book in two days? Wow! So glad you enjoyed the cherry blintzes with sour cream...delicious.

    Dr. Linda

  2. Yes, she's a fun teenager who loves to read and clean! Thanks for reading our review Dr. Linda!