Literary Guide for Barbara Cohen’s “Molly’s Pilgrim”
Set in the early 20th century, Molly’s Pilgrim illuminates the multiple meanings and cultural roots of the word pilgrim. The story features a Jewish family who immigrated to the United States from Russia, likely to flee the pogroms.
Molly, the title character, has just moved with her parents to a small and culturally homogenous community. She doesn’t yet speak English fluently, and her parents are even less fluent than she is. Molly’s biggest challenge is fitting in at school. As the only Jewish student, she is teased and taunted for her difference in appearance, her accent, and her lack of knowledge about American cultural traditions – especially Thanksgiving.
Molly is first outed as not having the same cultural knowledge as her peers when she asks what Thanksgiving is while reading aloud from a textbook. The very same peers who had previously teased her for her looks can’t believe that anyone wouldn’t know about Thanksgiving; it has not occurred to them that there might be people in the world who don’t celebrate traditional American holidays. Later, when the Thanksgiving holiday rolls around, Molly’s very traditional teacher assigns the class the task of building a replica of the village in Plymouth where the pilgrims celebrated their first Thanksgiving. Molly’s mother creates a unique doll for the village based on Molly’s description of what a pilgrim is – a person who came to America from far away. She makes a beautiful doll, and though it doesn’t match the pictures that Molly has seen of the pilgrims, she can’t bring herself to explain to her mother that it’s not quite right. After all, her mother made the doll to look like herself as a young girl since she and her family have come to America from far away.
Already embarrassed to have outed herself as being new to American traditions, Molly is afraid to share her doll at school. When she finally does, her peers react exactly as she expected, but she discovers that despite what her classmates think, her doll teaches an important lesson. The pilgrims who began the American tradition of Thanksgiving came to North America in search of religious freedom – which is exactly what Molly’s family sought when they left Russia. Molly’s class learns that if a pilgrim is someone who comes to America in search of religious freedom, then Molly and her family are pilgrims, and her doll is welcome in the village.
Readers of all ages can gain meaningful insight from Molly’s experiences. The story challenges readers to question the traditional notion of what it means to be a pilgrim, and reminds readers of the many different ways in which families have made their way to the United States. In presenting an alternative perspective on what it means to be a pilgrim, author Barbara Cohen helps to bring new meaning to the celebration of Thanksgiving. Not only can the holiday be used to give thanks for the things we’re grateful for, but it can serve as a time to remember and honor those who have sought refuge in our country – for religious reasons or otherwise.
Using our accompanying literature guide, families can dig deep into these – and many other – big ideas. Critical thinking questions, a mini-lesson on Yiddish language and context clues, and outlines for extension activities (including a lesson using resources from the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA) offer rich ideas for supporting readers.
- Download Literary Guide for Molly’s Pilgrim by Barbara Cohen.