Yolen’s short story ‘‘Suzy and Leah’’ covers the meeting of two young girls—one is a blondehaired American student named Suzy; the other is Leah, a dark-haired refugee who has come to the United States from Nazi Germany. At the opening of the story, it is August 1944, approximately one year before the official end of World War II. Readers meet the girls through journal entries they are writing. Suzy addresses her writings to her diary. Leah writes to her mother.
The story begins with Suzy’s entry. She writes about her first visit to ‘‘that place,’’ as she puts it. She is referring to the refugee camp in town, one that everyone has been talking about. She comments that it is ‘‘ugly’’ and looks like ramshackle buildings she has seen on army bases. The camp is surrounded by a high fence, topped with barbed wire. Suzy has brought candy bars with her, as she has been told to do. The children on the other side of the fence flock to her, like animals do ‘‘in a zoo.’’ There is one child, though, who does not come to the fence—a young girl with dark hair, who merely stares at Suzy.
The next entry is written by Leah. She writes to her mother though, as Leah puts it, she is ‘‘gone from me forever.’’ Leah mentions that she saw Suzy and describes her as yet another girl ‘‘with more sweets.’’ Leah does not like the way her friends and all the other children rush to the fence to grab the treats. She writes, ‘‘we are no longer prisoners. Even though we are still penned in.’’
Suzy returns with fruit, and in her diary, she mocks the children on the other side of the fence for not knowing how to peel an orange before eating it. She also comments that the refugee children will soon be attending her school, but she hopes they clean themselves before they do. From the other side of this encounter, Leah writes about the conditions most of the children were in while they struggled through the war and fled from the Nazis. If they were lucky, she writes, they might have eaten bread. So accustomed to the near starvation she experienced, Leah is surprised to find that cereal comes in a box.
In Leah’s next entry, she comments on her fears of going to the American school. She says the American adults at her camp have told her she is safe. But she adds that the Germans told her family the same thing when they took them to the camps. It was there that Leah lost her mother and her baby brother, Natan. Leah is also concerned about the language barrier she and her fellow survivors are facing. Leah also mentions a young boy named Avi, who does not speak at all. Avi has not spoken a word since he was hidden in a cupboard to save him from the Nazis. After his grandmother hid him there, she was taken away. Avi was not discovered until three days later. He survived without water or food or ‘‘words to comfort him.’’
When the refugee children appear at Suzy’s school, Suzy recognizes one of her old blue dresses. The girl with the dark hair is wearing it. Suzy is a little angry with her mother for not having told her she had given the dress away, but at least the German children are clean, Suzy comments. Leah likes the blue dress she is wearing. But she does not like the name tags that the teachers handed out. She wonders what they might force them to wear next. In Germany, Jewish people were forced to wear yellow stars on their clothes to identify them as being Jewish. This made it easier for Nazi officials to round them up and take them away to the concentration camps. Leah also mentions that she does not like the girl with the yellow hair ‘‘who smiles so falsely at me.’’
Suzy’s teacher, Mr. Forest, assigns Suzy to help Leah with her English. He recognizes Leah’s language ability and wants her to build up her vocabulary fast so she can help teach the other refugee children. Suzy is reluctant to work with Leah. She refers to her as ‘‘Miss Porcupine,’’ adding that Leah is ‘‘prickly.’’ Suzy also wishes that Leah would stop wearing the same blue dress. When Leah writes, she mentions the dress and wishes she had another one to wear. She also would prefer to have someone other than Suzy working with her.
Suzy writes that Leah is very grumpy. No matter what Suzy tries to make her smile, Leah refuses. Leah also turns down the gifts that Suzy brings to her, like candy and apples, or even a pretty handkerchief. Suzy’s mom suggests that Suzy invite Leah home for dinner. But Suzy is reluctant, claiming that Leah is no fun to be around. She also has witnessed Leah’s fear. When Suzy corrects Leah’s writing, Suzy says that Leah shrinks back, as if Suzy might strike her.
Leah mentions her fears in her next entry. She is still concerned that Suzy and all the other Americans she has met so far will one day turn on her, just as the Germans turned on her family. One day, Leah writes, ‘‘They will remember we are not just refugees but Jews.’’ She continues to refuse the small gifts Suzy brings because she senses Suzy does not really like her. Leah feels that Suzy treats her like a pet, ‘‘a pet she does not really like or trust.’’
By the end of September, Leah’s language skills have improved considerably. However, Suzy states that the girl still does not smile. Suzy has noted a peculiar habit that Leah displays. Leah does not eat her lunch. Instead, she wraps the food in a napkin and places it in her pocket. Suzy wonders if Leah is getting enough to eat. In Leah’s entry, the young girl writes that she brings her food back to the camp and gives it to Avi. She recognizes that the food she is given at school is not ‘‘kosher’’ (food prepared according to Jewish diet laws), but Avi is too young to know the difference. Leah points out that Avi needs the extra nutrients.
Though Leah’s language skills continue to impress the teachers to the point that they have moved her up a grade, Suzy finds it hard to believe that Leah knows so little about the United States. Leah’s knowledge of the world is good, Suzy states, but she knows next to nothing about pop culture in America. She does not know the words of songs nor does she know any of the latest dances. Because Leah has little to say to her, Suzy says Leah is ‘‘stuck up.’’
Leah writes about her visit to Suzy’s house. Again, while there, she wraps the food she is served and places it in her pocket. She also writes that she was not feeling well, and when she went home, she gave the food to Avi. Leah also notes that she felt very comfortable around Suzy’s mother, but she had to hold back her emotions. She is concerned that if she allows her emotions to come out, she will forget her own mother.
Leah does not go to school the next day, and the following day, she is in the hospital because she has to have her appendix taken out. Suzy collects Leah’s things from school, including her diary. Suzy’s mom packs up some of her daughter’s dresses, but Suzy refuses to give away one of her favorites, even though it does not fit her anymore. Suzy later confesses that she read Leah’s diary. ‘‘I’d kill anyone who did that to me,’’ she writes. After reading Leah’s entries, Suzy finds she does not understand everything, so she asks her mom to explain what was going on in Germany. Suzy has trouble believing the horrors Leah has gone through. ‘‘How could she live with all that pain?’’
The story ends with Leah’s entry. She finds out that Suzy has read her journal. Suzy gives Leah her diary to read so they will be even. In the process, both girls learn a little more about one another. Suzy promises that as soon as Leah is out of the hospital, she has one more special dress to give her—the favorite one that Suzy was reluctant to give away earlier. Leah ends her entry happy to have found a new life and a new friend.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Jane Yolen, Published by Gale Group, 2001.