It is obvious that Yolen was motivated by the horrific acts of World War II to write the short story ‘‘Suzy and Leah.’’ The story uses a setting that is based on true events. There really was a refugee camp at Oswego, New York, that matches the description of the camp where Leah is housed. The stories that Leah recounts about her life before she comes to the United States reflect stories that survivors of the Holocaust have told. Though details about the war and the Holocaust are kept to a minimum and mostly remain in the background, the effects of both linger in the mind and the emotions of the character Leah. So even if the story is not overtly involved with the war and the Holocaust, Yolen has clearly written this story to make a point about what happened in Germany while it was under the control of Hitler’s Nazi government. One of the underlying forces that drove Hitler’s war against the Jews was his extreme prejudice. And in ‘‘Suzy and Leah,’’ Yolen demonstrates how prejudices can form.
In the first sentence of this short story, Yolen has Suzy describe an old army base where a group of refugees have been brought to stay. Suzy refers to it as ‘‘ that place.’’ By emphasizing the word that , Yolen creates a negative overtone. Suzy obviously has something to say about the buildings and the place. There is something about the army base that she does not like. Suzy confirms this by writing in her diary that the place is ‘‘ugly!’’ The exclamation point insinuates that this is not a normal ‘‘ugly.’’ And in fact it is not. The buildings are run-down, but something else is going on. There is a barbed wire fence going around the place, which makes both those outside the fence as well as those inside the fence realize that a definite line has been drawn between the two groups of people. One group, the barbed wire fence states, is different from the other. These concepts are mirrored in Suzy and Leah’s journal entries. Suzy comments that when she offered candy to the children as she stood on the outside of the fence, she felt like she was at the zoo. Leah states that even though they have been told they are no longer prisoners, the fence is visibly keeping her freedom at bay. In creating a distinct barrier between two groups of people, one lays the ground for prejudice. The fence implies that the refugees are people who cannot be trusted. This is similar to what Hitler was doing in Europe. He forced Jewish people out of their homes and into ghettos, and at times boarded up the streets so they could not come out at will. So it is little wonder that Suzy subconsciously thinks the refugees are as different from her as animals in a zoo. For Leah, it is easy to associate Suzy, with her blond hair and pretty dresses, with just another variation of the Nazis. The result is that neither girl trusts the other. Leah does not trust Suzy’s gifts or smiles. Suzy does not trust Leah’s grim expressions.
In Suzy’s next entry in her diary, she mocks the refugee children for not knowing how to peel oranges before eating them. In this instance, Suzy practices another elementary form of prejudice. She assumes everyone should be like her. When they are not, their strangeness increases, which pushes them farther away from what Suzy believes is the norm. Suzy insinuates that the children are stupid not to know that one does not eat the peel of an orange. She also writes that she is afraid to touch the refugees for fear of catching some contagious disease. Suzy implies through her statements about not knowing how to eat a common fruit and being dirty that the refugees are beneath her. Suzy, one can assume, takes baths and dresses neatly each day. Whereas, in her mind, the small boy who touched her might have given her ‘‘bugs,’’ she cannot fathom that the conditions in which these refugees live is lacking bathing facilities or that the children do not have clean clothes to wear. It is easier to feel righteous or superior. And this breeds prejudice. A fertile ground in creating prejudices against a group of people exists if one believes those people are of a lower status. People can be led to jump to the conclusion that this group of dirty people does not deserve to live in the same location as those who are better off. So the refugees, Suzy might conclude, deserve to live behind the barbed wire fence.
But Suzy is not the only one who jumps to conclusions. Leah states in her journal that she will not accept any food from ‘‘that yellow-haired girl.’’ Granted, Leah is reacting to Suzy’s having laughed at her friend for eating the orange peel. But there is something behind Leah’s mention of yellow hair that could lead to prejudice. Leah has dark hair. So is Suzy’s blond hair enough to make Leah create a barrier between her and Suzy? Has Leah projected her hatred of the Nazis onto Suzy because in her mind Suzy reminds her of light-haired Germans? One form of prejudice that spreads quickly among groups of people is based on appearances, such as the color of one’s skin. People with white skin might fear people with dark skin and vice versa because they are concerned that the color makes someone act or think differently. The idea that all people are connected to one another because they share the common trait of being human is overlooked. In Hitler’s Germany, anyone with a trace of Jewish blood was rounded up and put to death. What was their crime? They were different from Hitler’s definition of the Aryan race—people who originated from a northern European background.
A common language is a good way for people to come to accept one another; however, just because someone speaks a different language, it does not mean that deep down the two people are so foreign to one another that they cannot be considered equals. But Suzy makes a comment about language, part of which is slightly derogatory. She mentions that most of the refugees do not speak English. She is put off by this to the point that she challenges their right to be in this country. She writes, ‘‘This is America, after all.’’ With this statement, Suzy dismisses every person who has come to America from a country in which English is not the first language. She insists that anyone who lives in this country needs to speak English. Since the United States is a land of refugees, except for Native Americans (who originally did not speak English, by the way), a large portion of those who are Americans have parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents who did not speak English when they first arrived.
Through her concept that everyone in this country should immediately know how to speak English, Suzy is marginalizing everyone who does not speak English, and subtly insinuating that if they do not, then they should not be in America. Later, Suzy makes fun of the refugee children when they mispronounce words as they struggle to learn English. Suzy demonstrates through her comments that she is clearly not familiar with the study of language. If she had tried to learn German or Chinese or any language other than English, she might empathize with the refugees. She would understand how difficult it is to drop an American accent and pick up the natural tones and sounds of letters in a foreign language. It is too easy to mock someone else when the experience is not shared. Thus, prejudice can develop when one person laughs at another person’s language and then uses the differences to call that person strange. Language differences can become very much like the barbed wire fence—an artificial barrier between two groups of people. When Leah ponders the language differences in preparing to attend school, she writes, ‘‘There is barbed wire still between us and the world.’’ With this Leah implies language can also keep her cut off from the people who live on the other side of the fence. If language is not common between two groups of people, how can they communicate? There are ways, of course. But those who mock another person’s language or accent are erecting a fence, searching for a way to keep so-called foreigners away.
In another incident, Leah states that she dislikes Suzy’s name. She says that it is a ‘‘silly’’ name because it means nothing. Then Leah claims her name was handed down from her great-grandmother, ‘‘who was an important woman in our village.’’ Leah has a right to feel proud of her heritage, but in the process, she puts down Suzy’s name. Here is another excuse that people use to diminish the worth of someone from another culture. This is that same trap of putting oneself on a higher level than another person. When people act arrogantly, they are saying they are better than someone else. In Leah’s case, she feels above Suzy, but not for anything that Leah accomplished. She did nothing to deserve the honor of her great-grandmother’s name except that she was born. And yet she feels superior to Suzy.
Suzy also mentions the differences in culture. She ridicules Leah because Leah does not know how to dance to contemporary American music. Suzy’s mind is not open enough to consider that Leah might have dances of her own from her country. Neither does Suzy realize that after experiencing the war and the concentration camps, Leah might not feel like dancing. Nor does Suzy state that she offered to teach Leah words to American songs. It is far too convenient, as well as lazy, to keep the barriers up. Suzy appears determined to stay on her side of the fence, to commit Leah to being incorrigibly different and thus too strange to build a bridge between them. In subtle ways, Suzy has made Leah wear the same yellow star that Hitler made the Jews wear. Here is proof, the yellow star yelled out, that the wearer is different from those who do not need to wear this emblem.
Yolen sets up all these scenes to show how prejudices are formed. Fortunately, she also demonstrates how those prejudices can be deconstructed. When one takes the time to really get to know the other person, to understand where they are coming from and what they are feeling, prejudice can melt away. Yolen ends her story by insinuating that Suzy and Leah were able to do this.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Jane Yolen, Published by Gale Group, 2001.