The Girl in the Torch

Book review by
Amanda May Dundas, Common Sense Media
The Girl in the Torch Book Poster Image
Immigrant girl braves early 1900s NYC in tale of resilience.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

An informative glimpse of the harsh realities immigrants and other minorities faced in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. The endpapers give more information about U.S. immigration history.

Positive Messages

Hard work, perseverance, and the power of friendship all triumph in this inspiring tale. No one should be discriminated against for the color of his or her skin.

Positive Role Models & Representations

After the shocking deaths of her parents, Sarah not only survives in a foreign land, she succeeds -- and helps others coping with loss to find peace and happiness.


Sarah's father dies during a vicious pogrom in Czarist Russia, and his death haunts her in her dreams. Her mother gets sick and dies soon after they arriving at Ellis Island. Frequent threats to Sarah's safety as she navigates New York City on her own; she almost lands in a sweatshop. Many of the men she encounters are drunk and menacing, and there's a persistent threat of sexual violence throughout the story.


Some historically racist terms are used (one character is called a "half-breed" and someone else mentions "Chinamen").

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Alcoholism and drunkenness among adults is rampant, as many try to escape the extreme difficulties and sadness of their lives in a bottle, but drinking is always portrayed negatively.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Girl in the Torch is the story of 12-year-old Sarah, a Jewish immigrant escaping the pogroms of Russia, who is orphaned upon her arrival in New York City. About to be sent back to a misogynist uncle in Russia, Sarah makes a daring escape and lives briefly in the crown of the Statue of Liberty -- the emblem of the hope and freedom she desperately seeks. While danger abounds, Sarah works hard and relies on her good instincts and a diverse group of newfound friends who risk their own welfare to help her. This novel vividly depicts the immigrant experience and the complexities of early 1900s America, which promised freedom yet was mired in poverty and racism. The endpapers give more information about U.S. immigration history. A fine choice for fans of historical fiction and families looking for books with diverse characters.

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What's the story?

Sarah and her mother flee Czarist Russia after her father is brutally killed during a pogrom. Then Sarah's mother falls gravely ill and dies soon after their arrival on Ellis Island. A minor, Sarah's told she will be returned to Russia. Knowing there's no future for her there, she makes a daring escape off the ship and survives by scavenging for food and pennies during the day and hiding out in the Statue of Liberty's crown at night. Ultimately, she lands in Chinatown, where she bonds with a half-Native American security guard, his Chinese landlady, their African-American help, and other Chinese tenants. She cooks and cleans in exchange for her room and board. Despite considerable dangers facing the orphaned child, Sarah manages to survive and becomes friends with the diverse members of the household who wind up putting themselves at considerable risk to protect her. 

Is it any good?

By imbuing historical fiction with the feel of a thriller, this ambitious novel is both educational and entertaining. Immigrant America in the early 1900s provides a colorful backdrop as artfully drawn characters struggle for survival during a time fraught with danger.

THE GIRL IN THE TORCH's realistic portrayal of this harsh time period may be upsetting to some, but the hard times are offset by the goodness Sarah finds in some unlikely friends who take her in and ultimately prove that "family" means so much more than your blood relatives.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about their own ancestral heritage. Where did your family come from, and what sorts of difficulties did they face when they first arrived in America?

  • Sarah never seems to get discouraged despite her considerable obstacles and losses. Where do you think she finds her strength and resolve?

  • The children in this story act more like adults, working hard and accepting responsibility for their own well-being. What are the differences between kids today and then?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love strong girls and history

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