As a young girl in Budapest in the 1930s, Marika dreams of growing up to be a scientist or maybe an explorer. An older brother who never tells her anything, a beloved rag doll, an embarrassing mother, school, friends--Marika's life revolves around ordinary things until her father decides to build a wall in their home, creating separate living quarters for himself. Why can't they live together, like her friend Zsofi's family?
Then, when Marika is fifteen, the Germans occupy Budapest, and war surrounds her. Her ordinary life disintegrates as her friends and family separate. Forced into hiding, Marika begins to understand the fragility and strength of the bonds among family and friends, and gradually she comes to terms with her shattered world.

Everything I had heard about being Jewish or not Jewish was crazy anyway. When I talked, Apa told me not to use my hands because that was a Jewish thing to do. Uncle Lipot said I was lucky I had such a small nose; nobody would think I was Jewish. Really, we were no more Jewish than Mitzi Neni or the cook.
Author perspective

Marika is based on my mother's life from 1935-1945. I was not trying to write a biography but rather to capture the feelings of a child with little control of the world around her. When I was growing up, I often asked my mother about her past. My grandmother lived with us, and I wondered what made her the way she was. In Marika, I put together the stories I heard, and when I was stuck, I walked down the street to my mother's house and asked her!

Publisher's Weekly (starred)

"In this promising debut novel, Cheng sensitively mines her mother's experiences as the daughter of assimilated Jews in 1930s and '40s Budapest. Marika, age six, worries much more about her parents' separation than about her uncle's advice to change the name of her doll from Maxi to something "less Jewish": "Everything I had heard about being Jewish or not Jewish was crazy anyway.... Really, we were no more Jewish than [the nanny] or the cook." Apa, her father, advises her to think of herself as Roman Catholic, and Marika, who narrates, is happy to agree. Apa is strong and charismatic, unlike Marika's odd mother, who is so ineffectual that even Marika calls her by her first name, Anya. Cheng stays true to her protagonist's perspective as Marika comes of age over 10 cataclysmic years. While Apa and his brother anxiously track Hitler's rise in faraway Germany (and take measures to protect themselves), Marika reports on more personal indications of unrest-among them, her changing status at school, where kids start whispering that she shouldn't be attending mass, and the bullying by local boys near the family's country house that makes her regard her stay there as dangerous rather than restorative. The author inhabits the character so smoothly that her story reads almost like memoir; readers will almost certainly be moved by her evocation of Marika's lost world." Ages 10-up. 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

- Jan 2002

School Library Journal

"Grade 4-8-In 1934, Marika is six. Her world in Hungary is very ordinary; her biggest concerns are school and the wall dividing her home into two apartments: one for her father, the other for her mother, brother, and herself. Although her family is Jewish, they live like Christians, celebrating Christmas and going to mass. As she grows older, the war comes closer, and she begins to feel its effects. When she is 16, the Nazis take over the country, and she poses as the Catholic niece of a family friend. Deceptively simple, the story, told in first person, captures a child's life as she grows into the realization of the horrors around her. Marika is a well-realized and sympathetic character, believable in both her childlike concerns and her more adult fears as the war affects her directly. Her family is realistically flawed, especially her beloved father, who has an affair with a neighbor's wife, yet does everything he can to shelter Marika from harm. At times the brevity of the story makes it seem rather disjointed, but Cheng brings Marika and her world alive with her simple prose, investing readers in the protagonist's life. There is a lot of World War II and Holocaust literature available for young people, but libraries needing a fresh voice could consider adding this intriguing offering." Amy Lilien-Harper, The Ferguson Library, Stamford, CT 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.


"Gr. 7-12. Being Jewish means nothing to 12-year-old Marika Schnurmacher in Budapest, Hungary, in 1939. She and her brother have been baptized, and they go to Catholic mass. Who cares anyway? Even the war is distant. Marika's real problems are at home: her parents are separated, her father has a mistress; and her mother is an embarrassment with her fancy clothes and jewelry. But as the war comes closer and the Nazis take over in 1944, Hungarian anti-Semitism becomes violent, and Marika must fake her identity to survive. Cheng, who bases her novel on her mother's story, tells what happens in the first person, in short, dramatic chapters that capture the viewpoint of a young girl in an affluent, assimilated, unhappy home. The passage of time is not always clear, especially when the narrative suddenly jumps to 1944, and Marika sounds the same whether she's 12 or 16. But the clear, quiet prose ultimately tells a riveting story not only about the Nazi terror and Hungarian anti-Semitism but also about families and their secrets." Hazel Rochman. American Library Association.

Book type: 
Young adult novel
Front Street
Publication date: 
Jan 2002
Interest level: 
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