Astonishingly good debut novel by former Winnipegger Sandy Shefrin Rabin

Sandy Shefrin Rabin/book cover

By BERNIE BELLAN
One of the great joys of being in the position of editor of a Jewish newspaper is being on the receiving end of what seem to be a never-ending series of well-written books, either by current Winnipeggers or former Winnipeggers.


In the past three months I’ve had the pleasure of reading books by Allan Levine, Jack London, and Mira Sucharov. I would recommend any of them to readers of this paper – as I have in previous issues.
But, when I was contacted by another former Winnipegger by the name of Sandy Shefrin (whose married name is Rabin) some time back, when Sandy told me that she had written a book and was looking for a good publisher, I must admit that while I remembered Sandy’s name as someone who had grown up in Winnipeg around the same time as me, unlike the three aforementioned writers, I had no idea whether Sandy was a good writer or not.
If truth be told, when Sandy had also written in her email to me that what she wanted to publish was her first novel, as someone who has also received many first-time novels, my expectations were not all that great.
And so, when Sandy contacted me again recently to say that she had published her novel – and had followed up my advice to contact Friesen’s Publishers – a company which I knew had a reputation of being a quality publisher, I replied to her that I would get to her book once I finished reading some other books whose authors I had promised I would review.

I shouldn’t have waited.
From the moment I began reading the first chapter of “Prairie Sonata” I realized that Sandy was a writer of immense talent. Her descriptive language was breathtakingly beautiful – not overly laden with the kind of flowery prose that one might have anticipated reading when a first-time writer wants to show off how expansive his or her vocabulary is, but so evocative that I could picture her scenes as vividly as if I were right there with her characters.
And, what should “Prairie Sonata” turn out be about, but a story set in a fictitious Manitoba town called “Ambrosia”, beginning in 1948. Ambrosia actually is a thinly-veiled version of Winnipeg in so many respects (and if you read the following article, in which I ask Sandy why she didn’t just use the real Winnipeg as the location for her novel, you’ll read the answer to that question).

The book opens with the narrator, an 11-year-old girl by the name of Mira, wistfully recalling her childhood:
“And I would go back there if I could. Despite the freezing winters and piercing winds. If I could be in the same house and look out of the same windows at the long, arching tree branches laden with snow and watch the feathery snowflakes waft down from the sky like fairy dust. And if I could hear my mother in the kitchen, the rhythmic tapping of her wooden spoon against the sides of the bowl as she turned flour and shortening into a delicious cherry pie, so delicious it was almost like a miracle.”
As the story develops we learn that Mira has what we might consider an idyllic childhood, surrounded by loving parents – her father the town surgeon, her mother a thoroughly competent homemaker who always seems to find the right thing to say to Mira, and her little adoring brother Sammy, who is three years younger than Mira.
Into this tableaux of happy characters enters “Chaver B”, as he is known – a new teacher in the Peretz School (a name familiar to anyone who grew up in Winnipeg’s Jewish community). Chaver B, or Ari Bergman, which is his full name, is a survivor of the Holocaust and, as one might anticipate, he carries an extremely heavy burden within him.
As it also turns out, Chaver B is an accomplished violinist, but for some reason he does not play the violin himself any more. He is invited to the Adler home for Sabbath dinner and, while there, he discovers that Mira is also studying violin.
He offers to give Mira violin lessons when he is told that her former violin teacher has left Ambrosia. What develops though is not just a warm relationship between student and teacher, it is an opportunity for Mira to learn about life and for Chaver B to have someone to whom he can open up about what has happened to him.

There are many insertions of Yiddish phrases, often whole sentences throughout the book, and while the author does provide translations for many of them, some are undoubtedly included just to add a flavour to the time and place in which the story is set. While it would undoubtedly help to be able to understand Yiddish in order to appreciate the precise aptness of a certain expression, as someone whose knowledge of Yiddish is rather limited myself, by sounding out the words in my mind I was taken back to a time when my own grandparents spoke Yiddish between themselves. I would think that even someone who knows no Yiddish at all can get a sense of the cadence of that wonderful language in reading the Yiddish in this book.
While there have been more books written about the Holocaust than any other subject in history, “Prairie Sonata” is not really another Holocaust book. It forms a major component of the story but, as Mira grows from a bright and cheery 11-year-old to a mature 15-year-old, we get a full sense of what life was like in a bygone era, not too long after the end of the Second World War (which, by the way, precedes Sandy Shefrin’s own childhood by several years; this is not an autobiography, as Sandy explained to me.)
Each chapter of the book begins with a quote from something written by a host of well-known writers – and although they reveal the extraordinarily eclectic breadth of the author’s acquaintance with a vast number of literary works, trying to understand the significance of each quote is a bit of a puzzle. I’ll leave it to others who have far more refined literary tastes than my own to figure that out – and perhaps get back to me with an explanation.

One other wonderful element to the story is the explanation of musical terms that may be familiar enough, but whose actual origin is likely known only by music students themselves. In one vividly drawn chapter, Chaver B explains to Mira how a sonata is actually structured. In doing so, the author is also explaining to the reader why her book is structured the way that it is.
Music plays such a central role in “Prairie Sonata” that I often had to stop reading to go and listen to an actual piece of music that is referenced so that I might understand why that particular piece would elicit the type of reaction that it does from Mira when she first hears it played.
To reveal too much of the plot would be a disservice to readers. Suffice to say that, as Mira learns more from Chaver B about what happened to him during the war, she begins to understand the meaning of anti-Semitism. Having grown up in a rather sheltered environment in Ambrosia she is really quite innocent, even though she would have been a young girl during World War II. Discovering the unparalleled cruelties of what happened to Europe’s Jews through Chaver B’s story is something that will resonate with anyone of any age – not just someone close to Mira’s age.
While “Prairie Sonata” might be considered a work of juvenile fiction, and it is definitely recommended for young readers – perhaps even pre-teens if they would be interested in a coming of age story, I would say that this book – if word of its brilliance spreads, will find an audience especially among Winnipeggers and former Winnipeggers who remember a time when life was somewhat simpler – without all the technological distractions that nowadays seem to combine to rob young people of the pleasures that come with encountering the world without having to experience it through social media.
Our community has produced a number of talented female writers whose books are intended for a young audience, including Carol Matas, Eva Wiseman, and Harriet Zaidman. While we can now add Sandy Shefrin’s name to that list, I would suggest that “Prairie Sonata” can fit into so many different categories of fiction that it will appeal to readers of all ages. And, at a time when so many of us are looking for something that will help take us through what, for most of us, is the most difficult period in history, I could recommend nothing more absorbing than taking your mind off what we are going through than this book.
Prairie Sonata
By Sandy Shefrin Rubin
Friesen Press, published 2020
267 pages
Currently available on Amazon in either print or Kindle format

 

Sandy Shefrin on growing up in Winnipeg and how she came to write “Prairie Sonata”
By BERNIE BELLAN
When I was first contacted by Sandy Shefrin Rabin quite some time ago, I told her that I remembered the name Sandy Shefrin from long ago - when we both were teenagers. When she went on to tell me that she was a first-time novelist, well – I’ve heard from a fair number of writers over the years asking me whether I’d like to read their books, so I can’t say that I was in any rush to read her book.
At the time that she contacted me I didn’t ask Sandy for any information about her background. It was only after I heard from her again not too long ago to tell me that her book was actually published – and she wondered whether I would like to read it, that I became interested in finding out more about her. I asked her to send me some biographical information.
So, in addition to her book, which she sent me as a pdf, she also sent me a picture of the book jacket. The back of the book jacket contains the following biographical information:
“Sandy Shefrin Rabin grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in a community much like Mira’s. She holds both a B.A. in English and an M.D. degree from the University of Manitoba. She completed an Internal Medicine residency at McGill University and her Neurology residency at the New York Hospital Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan. She currently practices Neurology in Marin County, near San Francisco.
“Sandy has written for the Marin Independent Journal and has been published in several medical journals. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and has three sons. Prairie Sonata is her first novel.”

In a subsequent email I asked Sandy to expand some upon her educational background and how she ended up where she is.
Here’s what she wrote back:
“I grew up in north end Winnipeg on Inkster Blvd. I am a graduate of I. L. Peretz Folk School and St. John’s High. I earned a B.A. in English from the University of Manitoba and my M.D. degree from the University of Manitoba.” (She later told me she left Winnipeg after graduating from medical school, when she was 25.)

A neurologist, I thought - with a very impressive CV. So, why did she decide to become a novelist I wondered –and, to be honest, since I knew that we are close in age (and I’m not exactly a spring chicken), why did she wait until now to turn out her very first novel?
So, I asked Sandy that question. Here’s what she wrote back:
“I wrote the book for a few different reasons. I had just written an article about my mother in remembrance of the fourth anniversary of her passing, and although I felt good about having remembered her that way, I was left with an uneasiness; after a couple of generations, who would remember her, and who would remember my father who died almost fifty years ago? They would become no more than people in photographs or videos. Who would remember their essence?
“So I decided to write a story set on the Manitoba prairies and use my parents as prototypes for the main characters. I created a fictional town, Ambrosia, since my mother was born and grew up in Winkler. In the end, neither my father nor my mother became any one character in particular, but you can see glimpses of them in several of the characters throughout the novel.
“I feel privileged to have had a wonderful childhood growing up in the north end of Winnipeg. Much of what I create in the novel is based on the Winnipeg Jewish community – especially Peretz School – fictionalized and transplanted to Ambrosia. Peretz School was a unique and wonderful place with caring teachers, and I wanted to capture that experience and hope that I have done so in a positive way.
“Another impetus for the novel was the state of the world at the time I began writing. I started writing in early 2016 when ISIS was at its peak, and we were able to witness their atrocities on television. I was shocked that the world had descended to this level of barbarism, and it made me wonder if civilization had advanced at all over the ages. While growing up, I remember thinking that the world was definitely going to become a better place over the years, but it certainly seemed to be falling very short of that goal. Little did I know at that time that the next four years were going to bring even more turmoil — and not just Covid-19 – but also division among people and worsening racism and anti-Semitism around the world. These last four years serve as a lesson in how quickly a society can change when presented with misinformation and lies, and how we all need to remain vigilant against bigotry and hatred, issues that my novel addresses. Mira, my main protagonist, struggles not only to cope with the random uncontrollable things that happen in her life but also to understand why one human being would willfully perpetrate evil on another. Out of these ideas grew Mira’s journey from innocence to experience.
“There are various themes in the book, both timely and timeless, and I think it would be a great addition to high school and college reading lists, and book clubs. I’ve included a Discussion and Study Guide at the end. I hope people enjoy reading it.”

Once I finished reading the book – and, if you read my adjoining review, you’ll see that I was simply floored at how good it was, I had so many more questions for Sandy. (By the way, as I write this, I’ve handed the book to my wife, who is also an avid reader. She herself said she was astonished at how good the book was when she had only finished the first few chapters.)
I asked Sandy whether she still had any relatives in Winnipeg?
She wrote back: “I still have relatives in Winnipeg from both sides, Shefrin and Danzker. My mom’s maiden name was Clara Danzker and she married my dad, Sam Shefrin. I have a sister, Myrna Shefrin, who now lives in Vancouver and a brother, Hersh Shefrin, who lives near me in Palo Alto. He won the distinguished alumnus award from the University of Manitoba in 2019. He’s an economist.” (We had an article by Myron Love in our May 29, 2019 issue about Hersh Shefrin’s receiving that award, by the way. You can find it on our website jewishpostandnews.ca if you enter the words “Hersh Shefrin” in our search engine.)

Although “Prairie Sonata” is labeled a work of fiction, there are so many passages that will remind quite a few of our readers of their own experiences, especially for anyone who had ever attended Peretz School, that I asked Sandy how much of the novel is based on her own experience?
She replied: “Good question. Prairie Sonata is a work of fiction; it’s not a memoir. Like many authors, my novel is informed by my own experiences, but it’s not autobiographical. I am not Mira. I never had a teacher like Chaver B nor did I ever have a relationship with a teacher even remotely similar to Mira’s and Chaver B’s relationship. “I was the youngest of three, not the oldest of two. My parents were not professionals. I studied piano for most of my youth, and learned a little violin in Junior High School, although one of my sons plays the violin. However, I did go to Peretz School, and I definitely wanted to capture the uniqueness and character of the school.
“Although I grew up in the 60s, the story takes place in the late 40s and early 50s, and the historical events that I describe took place during that time period, or some even earlier. Even some minor things were not part of the 60s. For example, there was no Yiddish theatre in Winnipeg in the 60s, as far as I know. The Friday night get-togethers at Peretz School were long gone by then. So I hope that anyone who attended Peretz School “would identify with the book.”

Something that I kept wondering as I made my way through the book was: Why did Sandy create a fictitious town – Ambrosia, when so much of what happens would be so familiar to anyone who grew up in Winnipeg’s Jewish community?
Her answer was that “I debated that for a long time, and you may be right, perhaps I should have, but ultimately I came to the decision to not set the story in Winnipeg for a few different reasons. I initially thought I would model the protagonist after my mother, who grew up in Winkler, although in the end Mira turned out to be her own character. I was interested in a setting closer to nature, and believed I could best accomplish that in a rural setting. I didn’t want a “city” book; I wanted a “country book,” a book about all that the fields and sky and the landscape evokes. Natural imagery is a big part of the novel, both mirroring and contrasting with what the characters are experiencing, and the landscape almost becomes a character in of itself.
“Someone suggested that I use a real place, such as Altona or Winkler, but I didn’t want to do that either, because I really knew very little about them and didn’t believe that I could accurately portray them in that time period, and would likely receive criticism for my inaccuracies. As I said, the book is not autobiographical, and I thought that if it were set outside of Winnipeg, people would be less likely to view it as a memoir.
“The novel is about Mira’s journey from innocence to experience. Ambrosia is defined as “the sweet nectar of the gods.” I thought that was the perfect name for a place that embodies the sweetness of innocence, in particular Mira’s innocence.
“Overall, I believed that a fictitious town would make the story more universal. So, I don’t consider the town of Ambrosia to be a façade, and I hope others don’t either. I wanted to create a work of fiction, and I thought that was the best way to accomplish that goal.”

Finally, I asked Sandy about her married name. How did she end up marrying someone with the name “Rabin” I wondered- and, was this really her first novel? (which I found so hard to believe because it’s so beautifully polished from beginning to end).
Sandy responded: “Rabin is really my married name. Funny you asked about a nom de plume, because my husband often said I should take one. I was never sure if he was serious. As far as I know, it was just shortened from Rabinowitz, but we haven’t talked about it in a while, so I’ll ask him again tomorrow.
“This is my first novel. I think my last short story was in grade six about the Mystery of Cornelia Hilltop — the mystery being that she had a twin, and then I wrote a short story that I sent into Chatelaine when I was about 14 that was rejected. I don’t even remember what that was about. I wrote a poem when Bobbie Kennedy died and sent it to the family, to which they graciously replied, but no novels.
“I know I’ve said already many times that this is not an autobiography, but I did have to get into my 11 and 12 year old head to write the book, and once I did, it just seemed to take off. I often wonder if I could write the same book again, or any other for that matter. I hope I can and will, but once I got going, it just seemed to flow. It was a lot of fun to write.”

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