The Circlemaker (paperback)

Maxine Rose Schur

By Authority of Czar Nicholas, the families of Molovsk are to present their sons for induction into the military.The terms of conscription is 25 years. The Czar’s soldiers are riding into villages throughout Russia, seizing boys for the military. Mendel knows that he too will be taken – unless he can escape. The woods are filled with bounty hunters, and the border is heavily guarded by armed soldiers. Can Mendel cross the border to Hungary – and to freedom?


  1. Reviewed by American Library Association

    The Circlemaker is about Mendel, a 12-year-old Jewish boy in a Ukrainian shtetl who escapes 25 years of forced conscription in the czar’s army in 1852. Cezanne Pinto is about Cezanne, a 12-year-old African American boy on a Georgia plantation who escapes on the Underground Railroad to find freedom in Canada in 1860. Both these fine historical novels combine fast-paced adventure with a compelling sense of history, and in both the perilous journey across the border is also a personal rite of passage.

    Many African Americans and Jewish Americans hear stories like these about their families, pieces of oral history that have come down through the generations. In my own case, both my grandfathers, like Mendel, left Eastern Europe to escape military conscription, and they never saw their parents again.

    Of course, harsh as things were for impoverished Jews in anti-Semitic Eastern Europe, the oppression couldn’t compare with the system of slavery in the American South, where millions of people were shipped from Africa in chains and sold as property. Yet, for Mendel, faced with 25 years of military service, what drives him to escape and the conditions of his journey are surprisingly similar to the experience of runaway Cezanne. The bitter irony is that Mendel dreams of freedom in the U.S., while Cezanne must escape from the U.S. in order to be free.

    Young adults will be interested to see the connections and the differences between two brave boys who lived at the same time, worlds apart.

    In Schur’s novel, Mendel Cholinsky is a child of a poor, devout Jewish family in a Ukrainian village. When the Russian soldiers come for him, he cuts off his earlocks, hides the fact that he’s Jewish, and runs away. As he makes his way through the forest and over the border to Hungary, revolutionaries help him to evade the army patrols, and a secret network gives him shelter and false papers.

    It’s an exciting story of terror and disguise, of leaving home and outwitting the enemy. Schur re-creates the harsh village experience with authentic details of Yiddish culture, but there’s no Fiddler-on-the-Roof sentimentality. Some Jews in the big towns bribe their way out of the army or pay for substitutes to take their place. In the shtetl army roundup, one child cuts off his toes, but the soldiers take him anyway. Mendel’s companion on his escape journey is the crude, sneering bully, Dovid, who has always tormented Mendel and called him k’vatsh (coward). But, though Mendel leaves behind his home and hides his identity, the core of his father’s moral teaching stays with him: when Dovid is injured and Mendel has a chance to get away on his own, he transcends his selfishness and goes back to rescue the bully he hates. That’s when Mendel crosses the border to freedom and responsibility.

    From runaway slave child to soldier, cowboy, and teacher, Cezanne Pinto struggles to remake himself. As an old man in Chicago, he looks back at the early stages of his journey: the brutal and slovenly Virginia plantation, his raging grief when his mother is sold to a rancher far away, his escape to Canada on the Underground Railroad, his return to the South to search for his mother, his years as a cowboy with the horses he’s always loved.

    The form of the fictionalized memoir–with the old wise teacher looking back–allows Cezanne to comment on events and fill in the historical background, and this is sometimes contrived and preachy, especially in the early chapters, when the child has a near-perfect mentor who conveniently explains things to him. However, Stolz weaves in quotes and astonishing stories of the great figures of the time: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and, later, Zora Neale Hurston. Most moving is the boy’s need to rename himself and to get free from the language of slavery; his narrative shows and tells how he determinedly learns standard English, to speak it and to read it. He does find self-respect and friends who “don’t know black from white.” Still, prejudice remains wherever he goes; so does the bitter legacy of slavery. Though he searches for years, he never sees his mother again. (Reviewed Jan. 15, 1994)— Hazel Rochman

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