Eleven-year-old Mirka lives in Hereville, a town in an unnamed country where (almost) everyone is Jewish. Aside from her responsibilities as a daughter (do your chores, protect your brother) and as a Jewish girl (help prepare for the Sabbath), Mirka’s stepmother, Fruma, insists that Mirka work hard at preparing to be a competent wife, which means learning “womanly arts” like knitting. What Mirka really wants to do is fight dragons, which in Hereville is not exactly outlandish — just unacceptable for a girl. Still, when a local witch offers Mirka a gift in exchange for the girl’s defence of the witch’s pig from some bullies, Mirka is thrilled to hear that said gift is a chance to win a sword for herself. All Mirka has to do is sneak out of the house, get past a brother intent on protecting her, and defeat a troll. In a knitting contest. If she can pull it off, Mirka will be one step closer to becoming a heroine. If not, she’ll be lunch.
Hereville’s mix of cultural insight — readers will find guides to Jewish customs and translations of Yiddish words throughout — and naturalised fantasy provides an unexpected but effective setting for Mirka’s first story, in which she begins to understand the need to balance her own desires with her responsibilities to her family. The educational aspect of the story does peek through a bit in the extended description of Sabbath customs, but otherwise the story progresses smoothly, culminating in a genuinely surprising, but very fitting conclusion. I can’t wait to get the sequel from the library!
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