Author Sandy Shefrin Rabin (top row, third from right) in a 1965 class photo from  I. L. Peretz, the same school that the protagonist of her debut novel attends.
Author Sandy Shefrin Rabin (top row, third from right) in a 1965 class photo from I. L. Peretz, the same school that the protagonist of her debut novel attends.

Marin doctor’s debut novel is about a Jewish girl in Manitoba (just like she was)

Sandy Shefrin Rabin had thought about writing a novel since the age of 12. But it wasn’t until many decades later that the busy Mill Valley neurologist found the time and impetus to compose her first book.

“Prairie Sonata,” published late last year, follows 11-year-old Mira Adler from a life of innocence to an awareness of evil and its debilitating impacts on victims.

headshot of a smiling white woman with dark hair
Sandy Shefrin Rabin

Though “Prairie Sonata” is classified as a young adult novel — it won the 2021 Independent Press Award in that genre — Rabin regards it as a book for all ages. “Most of my readers so far have been adults,” said the 68-year-old author.

The novel received a starred Kirkus review, given to noteworthy books, and is a recommended resource for the Marin County Office of Education’s high school ethnic diversity curriculum. Classrooms Without Borders, a Jewish educational nonprofit, plans to feature it in a virtual book talk.

In the novel, Mira attends the Peretz School in Canada and takes a Yiddish class whose teacher opens her eyes to the cruelty that existed in a world far beyond her close-knit, post–World War II Jewish community. The teacher, an immigrant from Prague known as Chaver B., keeps his past hidden until he and Mira develop a close friendship through the private violin lessons he gives her. Over time, he reveals his nightmarish secrets.

“Our only hope was selfishness,” he tells her at one point. “Do what one has to do to make it to the end of the day, and then do it all over again the next day. Freeze your feelings. Forget about self-respect. That was the only hope. And without hope, there was no reason to wake up in the morning.”

Playing the violin in the Auschwitz orchestra saved his life.

Rabin’s novel takes place in Manitoba, a province in the Canadian prairies north of Minnesota and North Dakota. That’s where Rabin grew up and indeed attended the Peretz School, a Yiddish-language day school in her community.

Mira’s town of Ambrosia is fictional, as are other elements of the story. “It is based on my childhood, but it’s not biographical,” Rabin said.

cover of the book shows a girl, seen from behind, walking through a field of sunflowersShe grew up in Winnipeg in a “wonderful, warm Jewish community.” Rabin also speaks highly of the Peretz School, where everyone spoke Yiddish and learned some Hebrew. Named after the Polish Jewish writer Isaac Leib Peretz (1852-1915), the secular school exemplified that “there are so many ways to be Jewish. I thought people should know about it,” Rabin said.

A “very strong” Jewish community developed in Manitoba, where Eastern European Jews were among the first to settle there in the early 1900s, Rabin said. “Many were Yiddish-speaking. A lot of them were not religious. That led to the creation of the Peretz school.”

Rabin’s grandparents, who immigrated to Canada from Russia in the early 1900s, spoke Yiddish.

Rabin, who lost three great-aunts in the Holocaust, began writing her novel in early 2017.

“My life just got easier,” said the mother of three. “My kids became independent. I had a lot more time on my hands.” Since her medical practice kept her busy five days a week, she wrote mostly on weekends.

Rabin incorporated the kind of “warm, vibrant” Jewish community she knew as a child into her book. And with her parents no longer living, “I kind of wanted to try to immortalize them in some way.”

On the other hand, she was particularly saddened at the time by the rise of the Islamic State Group and “the state of the world at the time. It was very upsetting,” she said. “I thought when I was a young girl that the world would be a better place when I got older …”

Thus, Mira’s “passage from innocence,” as Rabin puts it, began to take shape — and the Holocaust proved a horrific example of evil.

“Prairie Sonata” by Sandy Shefrin Rabin (288 pages, Friesen Press). Available at Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley and from other retailers.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.