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The company wanted the Kaya doll, whose story occurs before European contact, not to represent all Native American tribes, and it chose Nez Perce partially because the tribe still exists and would advise them. Hirsch says American Girl aims to take “big historical themes and bring them down to girls’ size. If we want to provide a broader historical context, then we can explain it in ‘Looking Back,’ the nonfiction essay at the end of the story. We think that’s the best way to bring history to life for kids in a way that a textbook can’t really do.”
Some characteristics are determined as much by a doll’s place within the product line as by ethnicity. Rebecca, for example, does not have stereotypically dark-brown hair and eyes — not only because millions of Jewish people don’t conform to that stereotype, but also because Samantha Parkington, a brunette, already existed in 1904, so a lighter-haired Rebecca was placed at the tail end of the immigration boom, in 1914. Hirsch, who edited the Rebecca novels, told me: “After 35 years of immigration, the Jewish immigrant community was solidly established in America, especially in New York, where their population was 20% of America’s largest city. By this time, most were second and even third generation; their determination to build successful lives in America was bearing fruit, and they were beginning to have a major impact on the community around them. Telling that story rather than a ‘fresh off the boat’ story allowed Rebecca’s series to really show the [many significant ways] that Jewish Americans have shaped our country and our culture.”
But the concerns depicted in books like “Rebecca and Ana” and “Candlelight for Rebecca” are also relevant to most immigrant populations, from the hardship and uncertainty of entering the country to the inexorable pull of (and resistance to) assimilation, particularly across generations. The American Girl books as a whole are — admirably, in my opinion — willing to depict tragedy. Kirsten’s friend dies of cholera; Addy’s family is separated when her father and brother are sold; one of Rebecca’s cousins is detained on Ellis Island because he was injured on the trip over. When Rebecca’s aunt suggests that she, too, will return to Russia if her son is sent back, Rebecca’s mother warns her that not only is there no money for tickets, but no turning back, either. Hirsch says that once the parameters are set, the authors have freedom to invent the stories and characters.
Rebecca frequently runs into difficulty trying to guide her newly arrived cousin at school without speaking Yiddish, for example, but the tale that most directly addresses Jewish identity is drawn from an incident that series author Jacqueline Dembar Greene experienced as a third-grader, when she was assigned to make a Christmas-themed project despite being Jewish. Hirsch explained: “She didn’t know how to cope with it, and struggled with being attracted to it because it was pretty and fun and felt special, and her teacher expected it, but in her heart she knew it wasn’t right for her family or her culture. So I said we have to get that in there. That tension really was a theme throughout the books.” What makes this event appropriate for the series, Hirsch says, is that Rebecca’s experience — her wish to please her teacher and to make a beautiful object, which goes against her desire to please her traditional grandparents and celebrate her own family’s heritage — reflects the experience of many immigrant groups and their descendants: “We felt there was something universal [in her story] of the tension in being a minority culture in America,” said Hirsch.