Fiction in Real Times
Twenty-first century Hasidic life in Brooklyn. The 1994 bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) in Buenos Aires. Civil rights activism in Illinois in the 1960s. Crusades and plague in eleventh-century France. Famine in the ancient Middle East. In vivid new novels for young teen readers, smart and brave young female protagonists take center stage.
Set in a contemporary cloistered Hasidic sect in Borough Park, Brooklyn, Hush (Bloombsbury, $16.99) is the debut novel by the pseudonymous Eishes Chayil. At age 10, Gittel, witnesses her best friend, Devory, being molested by Devory’s older brother. Gittel goes on to watch helplessly Devory’s unsuccessful attempts to escape repeated abuse, while all the grown-ups — parents and teachers — insist she’s just misbehaving and difficult. The chapters alternate between Gittel at age 10 and at 18, when, along with the other graduates of her all-girls high school, she enters the exciting and anxious period of getting married, haunted by guilt that she did not do what she should have to save her friend.
The book describes the terrible travesty of sexual assault and the compounded betrayal from a silence motivated by a fierce wish to protect a family’s good name and its children’s marriage prospects. The story is leavened with humor, often born of the misunderstandings of a sheltered and parochial upbringing, as when Gittel insists to her gentile neighbor, whom she has surreptitiously befriended, that only hat-wearing Jews are allowed to enter heaven. Or when, as a new bride, she calls her relatives to let them know that her practically-still-a-stranger new husband (despite their terrified and unromantic procreative act) has taken out the garbage and is heartily congratulated by all but one aunt who asks her, “Did you want to marry a king or a garbage man? Don’t be so happy!” This book overall gives a complex but not unsympathetic portrait of Hasidic life, despite its enforced isolation and alienation from mainstream American culture. One only wishes that the novel’s author didn’t herself feel so constrained that she conceals her own identity.
Also told with compassion and leavened with humor (trademarks of this author’s other novels — Purge, and Confessions of a Closet Catholic) Life, After by Sarah Darer Littman is narrated by Dani, a girl whose father lost his livelihood in Argentina’s 2001 economic crisis after his sister was killed in the terrorist bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. Her father, in a deep and angry depression, refuses to allow the family to accept food given away at a church though they don’t have enough to eat at home. At the same time he insists they must not leave Argentina for better opportunities elsewhere. The situation challenges Dani’s youthful sense of hope as she needs to become more responsible than her father, though she would rather be enjoying the attentions of her boyfriend and the pleasures of summer. Eventually the family makes its way to North America, where a boy with Asperger’s syndrome is the only friend in her new high school who knows about the southern hemisphere she left behind. The easy flowing Spanish salutations and slang sprinkled throughout are a treat, and almost make the reader feel bilingual in this novel which depicts communities and chapters in Jewish history that young North American readers seldom have a chance to meet.
My Life with the Lincolns (Holt, $16.99) is a sweet, hilarious and serious debut novel by Gayle Brandeis set in Downers Grove, Illinois during the summer of 1966. Twelve-year-old Mina Edelman edits The Lincoln Log, her dad’s furniture store newsletter, filling it with chatty items like: “When Mary Lincoln was taken off to the nuthouse, she packed up a bag full of footstools, but no one knows why. I guess she really was crazy. Just like you’ll be crazy about our furniture! ABE’s might even have a footstool for all of your foot-resting (or nuthouse) needs.” Mina describes her family’s adventures and misadventures as her dad, Abe, inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr., takes Mina along to speeches and equal-housing demonstrations, when her mother believes they’re at furniture conventions. Through her fascination with trivia about the Lincoln family, Mina seizes on a series of coincidences, and is convinced — though she confides this notion only to the reader — that her family is the presidential family reincarnated. She feels burdened by the dreadful self-imposed responsibility of preventing her father’s assassination, and her own and her sister’s early deaths, as well as keeping her mother from going insane. This is a humorously told and nuanced story with an unusual angle on race relations and social justice that ends with an “unofficial” celebration of Mina’s bat mitzvah.
Set in eleventh-century France during the Crusades, Elvina’s Mirror is the second volume of a trilogy by Sylvie Weil ( Jewish Publication Society, $14). Originally published in French, it tells about the generous, brave, learned, respected and beloved granddaughter of the medieval Bible and Talmud commentator Rashi.
Elvina keeps her own counsel, loves her cousins and girlfriends, and is admired by a diverse and interesting cast of male characters. In the first volume, My Guardian Angel (Scholastic), Elvina saved the life of a frightened young Christian man who went AWOL as a conscientious objector to a Crusade. In Elvina’s Mirror, which Weil herself translated into English, the Jews of Troyes are besides themselves with contempt and fear when, they experience the plague and other mysterious misfortunes just as a family returning to Judaism after forced baptism moves into town. Elvina is determined — eventually with grandfather Rashi’s help — to rescue the new family’s traumatized nephew whose scholarly family was killed because they refused to be baptized. Elvina’s naïve but wise attempts to help this crazed young man heal and to mend a rift in the community make this psychologically insightful novel immensely satisfying.
And, finally, a historical novel set in the era of the Book of Judges, about three millennia ago. Selma Kritzer Silverberg wrote Naomi’s Song ( Jewish Publication Society, $14) in the 1950s for her own daughter; the manuscript was re-discovered on her shelf by a hospice worker after Silverberg’s death. It’s a gripping story of the enormously difficult life of lone women in fortified Bethlehem and the mountains of Moab, complete with remarkably graphic details of the agrarian and shepherd life. This gritty and engaging story serves to remind us we come from a very long line of resourceful, plucky and resilient women.