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In Grace Paley's short story, "The Loudest Voice," Shirley, the daughter of Jewish immigrants, is considered a hero by the play's director Mr. Hilton, a teacher of the school play. She has a particularly loud voice, and he asks her if she will participate in the holiday play for she has such a loud voice. It is a big part, he tells her, and if she wants it, she must agree to work hard. Shirley swears she will do so.
Ironically, the story starts with Shirley recounting that her mother and even the grocer complained that Shirley was too loud. And once her mother finds out that she is taking place in a Christian play, she becomes very unhappy. She is afraid she will lose sight of her own faith. However, Shirley's father is very open-minded about the entire situation. He believed that she will learn a good deal and that there are many people in the world to learn about.
A Christmas tree is erected in their neighborhood. Many people walk several blocks out of their way to buy bread, avoiding the Christmas tree. The butcher puts down the shades so that the light will not shine on his chickens. However, Shirley blows the lonely tree a kiss, comparing the tree to Jew in Egypt—"strangers in a strange land." This indicates that there is a great deal of discomfort in the community with the Christmas celebration. However, of all the Jewish children who have received parts in the play, only one boy is forbidden to participate. These people might not see Shirley as a hero, but would appreciate her selection as the narrator.
As the players continue their practicing, the director depends more and more on Shirley. If the students do not listen to his stage direction, he asks Shirley, with her loud voice, to repeat his instructions. When the night of the play comes, Shirley does a wonderful job, with a heart that is open to a story different than her own. She takes pride in the job she does.
The adults discuss it afterwards. Shirley's mother and a neighbor don't understand why Jewish children were picked for parts in this play, since it is not their holiday. However, Shirley's father believes the program was a great success, and a good experience for Shirley. He compares Christmas and Hanukkah and their historical roots. He says,
What belongs to history, belongs to all men.
Shirley is a hero to the play's director. She is a hero to her father, not because of being a part of a Christmas play, but for seizing the opportunity with which life has presented her. With some of their Jewish neighbors, Shirley is not a hero.
However, Shirley is a child who is able to embrace a part of American life without losing her own sense of importance in her Jewish faith and heritage.
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