Rebecca’s Journey Home tells the story of the author, Brynn Olenberg Sugarman, bringing home her daughter Rachele (“Rebecca” in the story) from Vietnam. Instead of the “Sugarmans”, the family in the story is the “Steins”. While the title centers on “Rebecca”—the Vietnamese adoptee, the story speaks more of the family’s adoption journey. Therefore, young siblings anticipating the addition of an adopted child into their home (or young siblings recently experiencing such an event) can especially identify with this story.
The “Stein” family consists of a mom, dad, and two young boys seeking to increase their family through adoption; the mother wants to care for one of the “many babies and children in the world whose parents had loved them but could not take care of them.” In a child-friendly way, Sugarman writes of the often lengthy adoption process: a whole year of waiting, telephone calling, document preparing, and prayer offerings for the new family member. Young readers may identify with these “happenings” in their own house in the months leading up to bringing a new little one home.
Through easy family dialogue, “Mrs. Stein” and her boys discuss “Rebecca’s” complex identity; she tells her children that their new baby sister “can be many things . . . Vietnamese . . . Jewish . . . and American!” The illustrations and conversations of the adoptive family in this story represent loving and welcoming sentiments. They gaze at the only two pictures they have of “Baby Rebecca” every day. When the call comes announcing clearance for travel to Vietnam, Mrs. Stein packs carefully for her trip to Vietnam and includes gifts for the other children at the orphanage. Once in “Baby Rebecca’s” homeland of Vietnam, the adoptive mother takes notice of the different culture around her and shops for souvenir type items to bring home for her family. Toward the end of the story, we see “Rebecca” and her family participate in a Jewish ritual bath (Mikvah); the family promises to raise their daughter in the Jewish traditions and to give her a “Jewish education.”
For all of its positive communication regarding transnational, transracial adoption, Rebecca’s Journey Home is also written with greater regard for the adoptive family’s perspective and emotions than that of the adoptee child.
As an adult adoptee who can now speak about my own adoption, I find this book blind to a few adoptee matters. For example, the adoptee in me does not feel comfortable with the phrase: “a country called Vietnam, where a baby was waiting to become a member of the Stein family.” As a baby, I did not await my adoptive parents’ arrival; more likely, I wondered where my birth mom had gone. Similarly, as an orphan in Haiti, our daughter most likely did not pass time waiting to become a member of our family; more likely, she wondered where her birth mom had gone and if she would return.
Other phrases that concerned me were: “Her name was Le Thi Hong, but they would give her another name, the English name Rebecca Rose.” and “Even though Baby Rebecca wasn’t Jewish yet, receiving her parents’ blessing was a good first step.” While, as an adoptive parent, I understand our desire to bring a new child into our home and to raise them as our own, the language of these statements, with no indication that Rebecca will retain any part of her Vietnamese name or education in her biological mother’s religion or culture, conveys this family’s intent to strip this little girl of her Vietnamese cultural identity as strongly as it conveys a dedication to welcoming her into “American Jewish” identity. Those who strive to raise their children in a way that includes their birth and adoptive cultures may, as I did, find this representation of the adoption journey objectionable or even disturbing.
As I mentioned earlier, young siblings of a transnational/transracial adoptee could enjoy and benefit from this book. Incidentally, I asked my 11-year-old Haitian adopted daughter to read the book. She most liked the two pages devoted to when “Mrs. Stein” finally holds “Rebecca” in her lap, gives her a bath and wraps her in a towel, and the boys celebrate by taking sweet pictures of their new sister. Clearly, despite it’s faults, the book communicates the happy steps along the journey of adoption that an adopted child can recognize and cherish.
Recommendation: Recommended; ages 3-7
Reviewer: Jamie Nagy