My Guardian Angel Discussion Guide
- Grades: 3–5
About this book
"Beautifully written...wonderfully realized characters and fascinating setting." Kirkus Reviews, starred review
About the book
My Guardian Angel is set in Troyes, France, in the year 1096, the year of the first Crusade. It tells the story of funny, feisty twelve-year old Elvina, the granddaughter of the great rabbi known as Rashi. Elvina is different from the other girls of her time; she knows how to read and write. She draws strength from this, as well as from her Guardian Angel, to whom she speaks constantly. The novel opens with the arrival of the Crusaders in Troyes, on their way to the Holy Land. The Crusaders have been known to batter down doors and burn Jewish homes, and kill Jews, all in the name of religion.
On a cold Sabbath afternoon while Elvina is alone in the house, three Crusaders pound at her door. One of them is wounded. Elvina has only a moment to make a difficult choice that could put her family and her entire community in grave danger. Can her Guardian Angel guide her and keep her safe?
Winner of the Prix Sorcières, France's most prestigious award for children's literature, My Guardian Angel is a story of courage, compassion and tolerance, that speaks clearly to readers of all faiths.
Ideas for novels can come in the most unexpected ways. The idea for this novel came from reading Rashi's commentary to the Bible. Rashi(1040-1105) is considered to this day by Jewish scholars as the Great Commentator. When you read the Bible in Hebrew (the original language of the Old Testament) you always have Rashi's commentary written in small characters at the bottom of the page.
Rashi's commentary answers all kinds of questions the reader of the Bible might ask. It explains the Law, it tells stories, it is full of old French words and details about life in medieval France, and has many cozy explanations-the sort that a nice grandfather would give his grandchildren.
Reading this commentary, I started wondering what Rashi looked like, what kind of hat he wore, and whether he had to wear distinctive clothes that showed he was a Jew. In Alsace and Germany, for example, Jews were forced to wear pointy hats and a yellow circle pinned to their chests, but this came after Rashi's time. Rashi and his family, I learned, dressed just like their Christian neighbors.
The name Rashi is an acronym (a word created from initials of other words) which stood for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, which means Solomon ben Isaac-or Solomon, son of Isaac. Rashi lived in Troyes, France, in the heart of the Champagne region. He ran a school, or Yeshiva, and he was the leader of the Jewish community in the whole region. He had three daughters, and four grandsons who, following in their grandfather's footsteps, became famous leaders and teachers of Jewish tradition and Law. We know that Rashi had at least one granddaughter, named Elvina - about whom I decided to write this novel.
Naturally, I had to find out everything I could about life in Troyes in Elvina's time. How did people dress? What did their houses look like? What kind of medicine did they practice? What did they eat? What kind of fruit and vegetables did they grow? Elvina and her family never laid eyes on a tomato, or an eggplant, or a potato, or corn, or bananas or oranges or pineapples. They did not use forks, only knives and spoons, and they usually just scooped up their food with slices of bread, or with their fingers.
I spent a lot of time imagining what life might be like in those days! I was helped by memories of my own childhood holidays in a small French village, where we had no plumbing, only outhouses, where water came from wells and my grandmother cooked on a woodstove.
I set the novel in 1096 because it was the year of the First Crusade, an important historical event that affected the lives of many people in Europe. Although the Crusade was mainly directed against Muslims, it was a very frightening time for Jews as well. It was reminiscent of the kind of oppression the Jews suffered in ancient Egypt. It also foreshadowed what they were to endure centuries later, first during the Spanish Inquisition, then during the Holocaust.
Where is Troyes? Find it on a map.
Where is Champagne? Does the word Champagne sound familiar to you? Champagne has always produced wine, but the bubbles were put in several centuries after Elvina's time. Elvina's family produced wine, but not the kind with bubbles.
"What is a Crusader?" Elvina asks her aunt Rachel, who answers, "A Crusader is a man who goes to Jerusalem, in the Holy Land, to reclaim the tomb of Jesus from the Muslims."
During the winter of 1095 and spring of 1096, tens of thousands of Crusaders swept through Europe on their way to the Holy Land. The Pope had called on them to go to Jerusalem to reclaim the tomb of Jesus. This was the first of several Crusades. Many Crusaders were rich and noble, but many more were extremely poor and stole everything they could get their hands on, as they traveled. They stole food, sheep, chickens, donkeys, horses. In some towns, they killed Jews by the hundreds and even thousands, when they refused to be baptized and become Christian.
Between 1095 and 1291 there were eight Crusades. Go to the library or do an internet search to find out everything you can about the different Crusades.
Talk to someone you know who has lived through a war, or has lived in a country occupied by a foreign army. Elvina and her family are terrified to see the Crusaders march into their town. Can you think of similar situations in the world today?
Medieval lifestyles and social structure
Rashi's family did not live in a neighborhood that was particularly marked off as "Jewish". The community was small, and Rashi was on friendly terms with his Christian neighbors, who were modest townspeople: craftsmen, farmers, merchants.
In the Middle Ages and up to the French Revolution (1789), social classes or ranks were very strictly defined, and there were few opportunities for informal socializing between people of different ranks. There was the nobility, or aristocracy, there was the clergy, and there were the people, that is, everybody else: merchants, peasants, workers, servants. Gauthier is a young knight, he belongs to the nobility. Under normal circumstances, a young nobleman would never meet Elvina, the daughter of a Jewish teacher, let alone speak to her.
Describe the classroom scenes in the book. Are they very different from your experiences in a classroom? How do the students learn? Obadiah, aged nineteen and one of Solomon ben Isaac's best students, is also a full-time teacher for the younger boys. What do you think of him as a teacher?
In the eleventh century, wristwatches did not exist, and there were very few clocks. Most of the clocks were of the sundial type. In the towns, everybody knew what time it was, more or less, from hearing the church bells calling Christians to prayer, in the morning, at noon, in the evening, and at night. From her room, Elvina can hear the bells of a nearby convent. The word hour existed, but the length of an hour was not fixed. It depended on the season! During the day people observed the place of the sun in the sky. The night was divided into "watches" (divisions of the night made by ancient peoples), and people went by the position of the stars, and the moon. Even now, the end of the Jewish Sabbath is officially marked by the appearance in the sky of three stars of medium brightness, on Saturday night.
Can you draw the clock belonging to Solomon ben Isaac's guest, following Elvina's description to her friend Gauthier? You might want to research the kind of clocks which existed in Elvina's time.
"Mazal" is a Hebrew word which means constellation, or star. Rashi, in his commentary on the Talmud (the traditional body of Jewish Law), explains that the mazal is a celestial guide that watches over us and speaks up for us in heaven.
Elvina speaks and writes imagined letters to her mazal. The mazal is not just an imaginary friend, but is truly a Guardian Angel, and speaking to her mazal is an expression of her faith. Faith plays a great part in the lives of all the characters.
You may know the expression "Mazal Tov" which means "good luck". It comes from the same word, mazal.
Elvina makes several choices which might be very dangerous for herself and for her family. When she lets the wounded Gauthier into her house, and later when she accepts to help him, is she doing something right or something wrong?
Have you ever been in a position to do something that was both right and wrong?
Do you approve of what Elvina does? What would you do if you were in her place?
Medieval women knew a lot about herbs and medicinal plants. Can you find examples of different medical treatments practiced by Elvina and her mother? Make a list of them (examples: wolf's tooth and agrimony for childbirth, an ointment made with pigeon droppings to cure itchy eyes, leeches, cupping.) Do you find them strange?
Were you surprised that Elvina and other children are given wine to drink? Can you think of any reasons why children might be given wine? Here are a couple of answers: The wine was very weak, not like wine nowadays. Water was often contaminated in those days, and it was safer to drink wine. Even if people didn't know about germs, they could tell when the water made them sick.
In a world where so little was explainable by science, superstitions were rampant. Many events were attributed to the existence and power of demons. Demons were held responsible for many diseases. There was a demon of fever, a demon that attacked children who didn't wash their hands before eating and gave them a sore throat and croup, others that caused blindness or forgetfulness. Special demons haunted the streets at night. There were no street lamps and nights were very dark and scary. When the moon was full, people felt safer.
An eclipse was a terrifying event. What do you think of the way people react to the eclipse, in chapter 20? How do they explain it? Have you ever seen an eclipse? Did it scare you?
Elvina's conscience never stops troubling her after she starts helping Gauthier. Her feeling of guilt takes on a strange form: she actually thinks she might be responsible for the eclipse of the moon! The eclipse might be a warning from heaven, and her whole community might suffer because of her.
Nowadays we know better than to think we can cause a natural phenomenon, like an eclipse, to occur. Still, have you ever felt so guilty that you thought something really bad might happen because of you?
What if someone from the eleventh century visited your house? Imagine how this person would react upon seeing cars, televisions, phones, electric lights, all the things we take for granted. Write a story about this.
Look up the word superstition. Find examples of superstitious behavior in the book, (examples: not using folded clothes for a pillow, making sure you don't see a dog on your way to your first day at school.) Can you think of modern superstitions? (examples: good luck charms, not walking under a ladder, being afraid of black cats, avoiding the number 13, etc.)
Ask your older relatives, or older friends and neighbors in your community, if they ever knew superstitious people. Ask them to tell you what some of their superstitions were.
Tolerance. Friendship with people of different backgrounds and religions.
Many Christians thought Jewish people had special powers, and so they were afraid of them. Elvina is friends with Marguerite and Jeanne. What happens when Elvina lights their lamp for them, in chapter 14? How do they react? Have you ever been in a situation where a friend hurt your feelings by accusing you of being "different"? Can you think of any times today when you feel barriers between you and people who are different from you?
How does the friendship between Elvina and Gauthier develop? It is very daring on the part of Elvina to form a friendship with a boy, to begin with, and a boy who is a Christian and belongs to a very different social class! In what ways are they similar, in spite of their obvious differences? Their relationship makes for suspense in the story. Can you imagine being in a similar situation in our society? Write a suspenseful story of your own about a surprising friendship between two characters who are very different.
Family life, and being a girl
In medieval families, roles were strictly defined according to gender. Elvina would love to study like her brother Yom Tov and her cousin Samuel, but she can't.
What chores does Elvina have to do in the house? Do some of these chores seem really strange and foreign to you? (Hatching eggs, spinning!)
Elvina considers herself a strange sort of girl because she likes to read and write. Do you find her strange?
How would you (a modern American kid ) feel if you were told you couldn't go to school? Who supports Elvina in her efforts to develop her mind and increase her knowledge? Do you have a friend, family member, or teacher who encourages you to pursue your education?
Elvina often seems to be in conflict with her father, Judah ben Nathan. She has contradictory feelings towards him. She is afraid of him, but she also loves him and desperately wants him to show his love for her. You see that in chapters 4, 9, and11, for example. Can you describe her feelings and how they are expressed? Can you relate to this sort of conflict with a parent?
Towards the end of the book, there is a violent conflict between Elvina and Obadiah, the schoolteacher? Why? What are Obadiah's feelings towards Elvina? What are her feelings towards him? How are these feelings expressed?
Elvina is not a simple girl. Though devoted to her family, and not at all rebellious according to modern standards (medieval girls were too busy doing important chores in the house to have time for teenage moodiness), she has a mind of her own and makes her own decisions. She is much braver than any of her friends. And she is very compassionate.
What is her reputation among her family and her friends? Which members of the family understand her best?
How do the events described in the novel change Elvina?
Some chapters are written in the third person (he, she, they) and some in the first person (I). Some events in the book are told twice, in a different way. The chapters in which Elvina confides in her mazal are written in the first person, so the reader feels closer to Elvina. It is a little as if she kept a diary. Do you keep a diary? Have you ever tried writing a story using different points of view? Try writing a story in first person. Then rewrite it in third person. What is different? Discuss how the point of view changes the story you are telling.
Language is alive and changes along with our culture. When you write a story taking place in the eleventh century, you have to adapt your language to that particular time. You can't have people say "Wait a minute!" or "In a few seconds" because those notions did not exist. You can't use the word "electric" because it belongs to modern physics. You can't write that somebody was "stressed out", because this word belongs to modern psychology. You can speak of a "fever" but not of an "infection", because this is a concept of modern medicine. You can't use modern lingo.
Read an article in a modern magazine and pick out language that would not have existed in medieval times.
Write a story taking place in the Middle Ages, being careful not to use words referring to modern notions.
What is suspense? Talk about the suspense in the story. What was the scariest part of the book?
Who was your favorite character? Who was your least favorite character? Why?
Did you have a favorite scene? If you could get into a time machine and spend a day in one scene of the book, which would it be? Write yourself into your favorite scene in the book.
Special Topic - Books at the Time of Rashi
Elvina and her family lived hundreds of years before printing presses were invented. Today, hundreds of thousands of books can be printed in days. But not back then. You couldn't just go and buy a book on Amazon.com, or download an ebook, or bid for books on eBay. You couldn't order books from Scholastic Book Clubs, or visit your local bookstore or library. There were very few books that existed, and they were not easily available. If you wanted to own a book, it had to be copied by hand. Copying books was a profession. There were scribes and monks who spent their whole lives copying sacred texts, like the Bible, on parchment (the skin of a sheep or goat prepared for writing on), using goose quills and ink. The parchment pages were then assembled to form books. Parchment and ink were very expensive.
Today there are many ways to get books. List the ways you, personally, get books.
The Jewish Bible, sometimes referred to as the Old Testament, was originally written in Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people. It was translated into Greek, then into Latin by the Christians. It was often copied on scrolls, but there were books, which looked very much like our books, except that the pages were parchment, and the covers were often made of wood. The pages and the covers were bound together with strings. If you have a hardcover edition of My Guardian Angel, remove the dust jacket. Beneath it, you will see what a medieval book from the time of Rashi looked like!
Life in Medieval Times
Catherine Called Birdie by Karen Cushman
The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz
Arthur Trilogy (The Seeing Stone; At the Crossing-Places; King of the Middle March) by Kevin Crossley-Holland
Favorite Medieval Tales by Mary Pope Osborne
Life in Europe during the Holocaust
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
No Pretty Pictures by Anita Lobel
Torn Thread by Anne Isaacs
The Cats in Krasinski Square by Karen Hesse
The Cat with the Yellow Star: Coming of Age in Terezin
by Susan Goldman Rubin
Adolph Hitler by James Cross Giblin
Hitler Youth by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
The Boy Who Dared by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
Jewish Life in Different Times in History
The All of a Kind Family by Sydnie Taylor
Wonders and Miracles by Eric Kimmel
Medieval Jewish Art
Wonders and Miracles by Eric Kimmel