Tag Archives: coming of age

“BELLS FOR ELI,” by Susan Beckham Zurenda

BELLS FOR ELI, by Susan Beckham Zurenda. Mercer University Press. 280 pages. Hardcover $25.00

Review by Philip K. Jason

Coming of age narratives, particularly about young women, have long been a staple in the literature of the American South. Zurenda’s marvelous book is a major achievement in this genre. It is deeply moving, troubling, and gloriously poetic. It brings to life small town South Carolina during the 1960s and 70s in a gorgeous and profound tale of the heart’s competing destinies.

Eli Winfield and Delia Green are first cousins, almost identical in age, growing up in and sharing the often-conflicting values of Green Branch, a small town with a long history.

The core drama of the novel begins with a serious accident. Eli swallows some lye, and the consequences are a severe physical and psychological handicap. The lye burns everything in its internal path through his body, and Eli only partly emerges from a trauma that follows him through his life. He endures a tracheotomy and is hospitalized for six months. He requires and tube in his throat.

Among the other children, he is a freak – a misfit. He needs special accommodations in order to make his young way in the world. His breathing and speech are strange. His accident has raised being different to a higher power.

Photo by Anna Beckham

Cousin Delia remains close and supportive to him, but Eli, with a mixture of resentment and bravado, remains a boy apart.

The author’s skill at bring readers into Eli’s changed world, and Delia’s part in his steps toward various stages of recovery, is remarkable. We get to know the cousins (and the larger extended family) extremely well.

As they mature socially, physically, and intellectually, the cousins’ abiding love for one another undergoes many tests and modifications. Eli strives to assert his likeness to the other kids, but for years he remains a freak, and he overcompensates to assert his worth and dignity. He is remarkable in what is essentially a losing fight. He’s been judged, taken advantage of, belittled, and humiliated. You know how kids can be. Well, the worst of rotten kid behavior is thrown in Eli’s path.

As the narrative builds, the attraction and love between the first cousins raises the issue of how, given religious strictures important to Delia, they cannot consider marriage. . . .

To read the full review, as first published in the Southern Literary Review, click here: 

 

 

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“The Moonshiner’s Daughter,” by Donna Everhart

Kensington Books. Trade paperback $15.95.

It’s 1960 in Wilke’s County, North Carolina and sixteen-year-old Jessie Sasser has a problem. In fact, she has several problems. One is an awkward and demeaning relationship with her father. He seems remote and silently critical. Jessie has asked him over and over to explain the death of her mother, which occurred when Jessie was four years old. However, she never gets a meaningful response. Her questioning is basically ignored. Her father resents her questioning, and Jessie interprets this to be, in part, the result of his complicity in her death.

The relationship is further complicated by Jessie’s rebellion against the family business of making and selling moonshine – illegal alcoholic beverages. This business supports her family, and many other families, in this place and time. It supports Jessie’s uncle, aunt, and cousin. This lazy trio does little assist Jessie’s father. They thrive on complaining.

Her younger brother, Merritt, idolizes their father and the moonshiner culture he proudly represents. Thus, Merritt cannot relate to his sister in any positive way.

In her high school, Jessie is almost totally without friends. She connects this condition of being left out or made fun of with the disgrace of the family’s low social status. Her one friend betrays her in various ways. Jessie also sees her isolation as being a consequence of her appearance. She perceives herself as obese, and to fight this vision of herself she has developed poor eating habits. She alternately binges, starves, and purges. The author’s fine, sympathetic delineation of the teenager’s severe eating disorder, along with its causes and consequences, is one of the novelist’s most powerful achievements.

Ms. Everhart provides hints that Jessie misperceives how others see her; however, her lack of self-esteem keeps reinforcing her self-image. Only her elderly neighbor, a woman of shrewd insight and compassion, takes the time to offer Jessie some tools and insights that slowly ameliorate her miserable condition. Mrs. Brewer, who is also a school nurse, is a remarkable character, drawn to perfection by the author.

At first, Jessie is defined as a rebel, fighting against the family’s moonshiner identity and the risks of such an enterprise – risks including the violence of a rival moonshining family and the county agents assigned to apprehend and jail moonshiners as criminals.

Donna Everhard-Credit Gina Warren photography

However, perhaps to win her father’s favor, she becomes cooperative and takes on a share of the work. Neither her father nor her brother is willing to trust her. Because Jessie is the narrator, we know that her change of heart is serious, but after a while she begins to have qualms about her shift in direction. When her father is arrested and sentenced to jail, she must fight the assumption of those who believe that she turned him in.

As the novel progresses, Jessie seems to be accepting the fact that she was born to the life of running moonshine stills and conveying the product to their customers. She’s good at it. She proves herself worthy. When her father is released, he finally offers Jessie some of the positive recognition that he had held back for so long. He also opens up, to a positive outcome, the truth about his wife’s participation in the business and the details about her death twelve years back.

Part of what makes Jessie a compelling character is that her flaws are recognizable. They define her without pushing the reader away. She slowly recognizes who she really is and what she can attain. This is not a story of unexpected epiphanies, but of gradual growth to an enhanced, effective self-awareness. Jessie has miles to go, but she is on the right track. She has developed inner resources that are likely to serve her well.

Meanwhile, if you’re interested in running an illegal distillery, this book can serve as a training manual

Originally published in Southern Literary Review as the January Review of the Month.

Click here: Moonshiner’s Daughter

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Inspired by actual events, this novel for all readers should become a young adult classic

My Real Name is Hanna, by Tara Lynn Masih. Mandel Vilar Press. 208 pages. Trade paperback with flap $16.95.

In her brilliant, poetic novel that reads like Holocaust testimony, Tara Masih presents a family’s horrifying journey to escape ultimate victimhood. In her early teens as the narrative begins, Hanna Slivka, as if keeping a diary, takes her future readers through the steps of her family’s struggle with Nazi oppression. 

In important ways a coming-of-age story, this novel begins by describing the situation for Jews in the small town (shtetele) of Kwasova as Nazi forces cross the border into Soviet-occupied Ukraine. Kwasova is a community that had been Austrian and Polish; its residents can’t be sure of what it will become next. This is especially true of its Jewish community, which before Hitler’s tyranny could at least get along with its non-Jewish neighbors.

The attempt to relocate and/or annihilate the Jews begins with orders to brand them. Hannah’s father tells the family: “The SS issued orders to the Ukrainian police and the Jewish Council. Jews are now being ordered to register and to make their own armbands, a blue Mogen Dovid, our Jewish star, sewn on to a white background.”

As the status of even substantial Jewish families falls, the father, Abram, realizes that maintaining housing and obtaining food will soon become impossible. It is also clear that hiding in barns, which worked for a while, won’t work anymore: their fellow townspeople will betray them.

Money and cherished valuables are disappearing. Now the Jewish families of the town must somehow disappear as well. The victims, in public opinion and via effective propaganda, have been transformed into the cause of the war that is threatening all of Europe.

Through her teenage narrator, Ms. Masih shows the material and psychological effects of these circumstance on the members of this family and another family with which they make joint plans for survival. They need to act quickly before that are marched into ghettos or simply murdered “in plain sight” to underscore SS power.

There is a feature of their lives that is especially moving. Facing disaster, these Jewish families manage to observe their religion’s precepts and holy days. They hide the synagogues torah and other important items. Such dedication becomes a source of strength.

How does a family hide in a forest? After walking a great distance from Kwasova, the come across a run-down isolated forestry station that will become their home. It is built from logs, and the gaps are filled with moss. They had carried with them as much as they could; now her father Uncle Levi make a round trip to and from the town for much-needed tools and other supplies. Now they can modify the cabin to fit their needs. They clean, discover a small stream with clear water that will serve their need for hygiene and food preparation.

They must arrange their days to avoid detection of their lantern light and smoke from the fire, and of course they must find the wood to feed the fire.

In constant fear, the family members support one another and search for sustenance. They obtain nutrition from the wild vegetation. Sometimes they can scrounge a chicken, yet most of the time they are starving.

Tara Lynn Masih

Abram risks occasional trips to the shtetele for flour and kerosene. The snow drifts are a big obstacle, and he must avoid leaving tracks in the snow. Networking with others, he establishes a coded way of leaving messages on a tree. It’s a silent, secret language. It helps with a much-needed commodity – news about what’s going on in the world around and beyond them. News of Hitler’s war.

The people in this nomadic entourage of relatives represent a spectrum of age groups, but it is Hanna who holds our attention as she helps take care of her younger siblings and as she muses about building her relationship with Leon Stadnick, who is two years her senior. They pray to make it to their next birthdays. These children are growing up fast and taking on adult tasks and risks.

Fearing that the Germans will eventually find them in the forest, Abram decides to take advantage of news about habitable caves, the gypsum caves of Kwasova, where darkness is even “darker than dark.” Making a safe haven out of the caves is even more difficult and dangerous than living in the forest cabin, but it serves the group’s purposes as a place to survive the Holocaust, which in this case means until the Russians return to Kwasova and drive the Germans out. However, the eventual allied victory does not promote, politically or psychologically, a vision of return to the once familiar home territory. The Slivka family and some of those who hid out with them in the forest and the caves decide to build new identities and lives in the United States.

From beginning to end, the story told is one of a cooperative effort. The family is aided in many ways by some members of their Kwasova community. Among these people are the Cohan twins, Pavel and Jacob, who are always showing up with the news or goods that the Slivka’s need. Both early and late in the story, their dearest neighbor, Alla Petrovich, is of great support and encouragement to the family. She carries the “righteous Christian” role in the story, and her colored eggs seem to make miracles possible. On the other hand, few of the townspeople show any desire for the possible return of their former neighbors.

St. Augustine writer Tara Lynn Masih blends diligent research, blazing imagination, and sophisticated literary technique in this transformational narrative. Marketed as a Young Adult novel, it can engage and educate readers all across the age spectrum.

 

This novel can be richly explored with the help of an easily available Reader’s and Teachers Guide. Go to: http://taramasih.com/my-real-name-is-hanna-readers-guide.pdf

Here are some of the accolades that this superb novel has received:

Julia Ward Howe Award

Florida Book Award~Gold Medal

Foreword INDIES Award~Gold Medal

Skipping Stones Honor Award

Litsy Award Nominee

A Goodreads’ Best Book of the Month~YA

 

This review appears in the November 2019 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee). It was reprinted in several editions of Florida Weekly on November 20 and 21, 2019. Here is a link: Florida Weekly – My Real Name is Hanna

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“MOON WATER,” BY PAM WEBBER

She Writes Press. 280 pages. Trade paperback $16,95.

Pam Webber

This tantalizing and sometimes frightening coming-of-age story centers on a strong-minded girl of sixteen, Nettie, and her battles with faith, sexuality, and a near-apocalyptic storm. Set in mountainous Central Virginia in 1969, the novel vividly captures the time and place with authority and respectful understanding. An intriguing extra ingredient is the influence of a native Monacan Indian leader, the grandmother of Nettie’s friend Win, who is an important force in the cultural and spiritual life of her community. This woman, Nibi, can read changes in the weather and restore health through the use of natural medicines. She is in tune with her environment, both a healer and a seer.

Nettie had been friends with Andy since they were in grade school, and now, in their teens, the relationship is maturing in a troublesome way. It’s not clear if they are ready for deep commitments to one another. Nettie is perplexed about “forever love.” She needs to explore what that means much further. How can she – or Andy – know what forever will bring?

Andy is hurt by Nettie’s inability to speak the familiar words of commitment without knowing herself better. He withdraws to give her the room she needs, but before long she finds him too often in the presence of Anne, who has been Nettie’s nemesis since they were young kids. Nettie cannot fathom what Andy sees in Anne, but it’s clear that Anne wants to lord it over the girl she sees as her rival.

For adult readers, such conflicts and uncertainties are long familiar. However, Ms. Webber probes these matters with sensitivity and nuance. Young Adult readers at the threshold Nettie is reaching (high school graduation and the unfathomable “then what?”) are likely to find Webber’s treatment of this theme particularly engaging and useful.

Commitment is a problem for Nettie in other ways as well. It is time for her to be baptized, but the priest at her church is dismayed by Nettie’s unwillingness to accept and voice traditional religious formulas. She is an independent thinker who wants to make her own decisions, not merely mouth platitudes that she hasn’t tested and explored for herself. When the priest observes that Nettie is not yet ready, Nettie is in agreement. However, she and Pastor Williams don’t mean the same thing. He means subservient, she means convinced.

As with her feelings for Andy, this young woman does not want to testify to feelings and beliefs that she isn’t sure are true to her sense of herself.

Pastor Williams sets up an intermediary, an associate pastor named Danes, to guide Nettie in the right direction. While Mr. Danes is a smooth operator and helpful in some ways, he turns out to be a sexual predator. Pastor Williams has put Nettie in harm’s way. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Southern Literary Review, click here:  Moon Water

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Moving ahead requires inventorying ugly truths from the past

Moral Inventory, by Tara Johnson. Austin Macauley. 154 pages. Trade paperback $10.95.

An intervention program named Helping Hands has, with her alcoholic mother’s connivance and permission, yanked young Elizabeth out of her downward spiraling life and provided a structure of rewards, punishments, and self-evaluation that might save her. At seventeen, she had found herself flattered by the attentions, muscles, and rebelliousness of Marcus, an unemployed predator several years too old for her. His controlling nature had become intolerable, though he had ways of making her feel important as well.

Not seeing him is part of her path to staying off drugs and making a meaningful, respectable life for herself.

Ms. Johnson’s portrait of about a half year in Elizabeth’s life is extremely vivid. It is a harrowing emotional ride in which the young woman’s intelligence is at war with her bad habits, including dangerous dependencies.

Elizabeth wavers between taking the lessons and regimen of Helping Hands to heart and merely playing the game of going along while looking for an out. Her life is on hold until she finishes the program – or runs away from it. She meets other young adults working their way through the program and in some cases assisting the director, Mrs. Stein. There is a well -constructed hierarchy of relationships and responsibilities that offers hope.

Readers will grasp the importance of such a “tough love” program, yet also understand Elizabeth’s ambivalent attitude and inconsistent behavior.

While the focus of the novel is Elizabeth’s struggles and successes within the confines of the Helping Hands structure, Ms. Johnson paints Elizabeth’s life and personality with a broader brush through flashbacks. The author clarifies the effects of Elizabeth’s father’s disappearance and her mother’s alcohol problem on Elizabeth’s early years.

Tara Johnson

The flashbacks include Elizabeth’s friendships with other girls and with temporary boyfriends. Her home environment places her in a low socio-economic class without the tools to transcend it. Though Elizabeth has a strong love for her mother, she also feels bitter about the unsought responsibility of dealing with a desperate drunk. At times, she is forced to take over the parent role. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the May 15, 2019 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the May 16 Naples, Fort Myers, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here and see lower half of page: Florida Weekly – Moral Inventory

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“The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek,” by Kim Michele Richardson

Sourcebooks/Landmark. 320 pages. Trade Paperback Original. $15.99. 

Readers are likely to find Ms. Richardson’s fourth novel to be one of the most original and unusual contributions they will encounter in the realm of the current literature of the  American South. Set in the heart of the Great Depression, this engaging story rests on two little-known historical features. One of these is the existence of a shunned community of blue-skinned people who fight racial prejudice on a daily basis. However, they are not racially different from the whites who taunt and disrespect them. The are Caucasian in physical features and in all ways but skin color. Nonetheless, being different dooms them, defining them as misfits.

The other historical feature is the author’s exploration of the “book women,” workers in one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s projects to rebuild the U. S. economy and provide useful employments along the way.

Richardson

The project is essentially educational – an attempt to bring reading materials – and enhanced literacy — to isolated communities. In this case, the communities are in Kentucky’s coal mining belt. The Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project is staffed by dedicated people, mostly women, who not only travel arduous routes to serve their clients, but who bring an unexpected, uplifting enlightenment to those who are brave enough to find value in books other than the bible.

These workers help the children, and even the parents, develop a love of reading along with greater reading skill. They provide reading suggestions, they keep tabs on the books in their charge, and their visits become high points on the calendars of those whom they visit. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the Southern Literary Review, click here: Book Woman

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The shadow of 9/11 looms over the lives of an otherwise privileged generation.

A Wonderful Stroke of Luck: A Novel, by Ann Beattie. Viking. 288 pages. Hardcover $25.00

A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, Ann Beattie’s 21st book, is extremely smart: edgy, infectious, witty, and yet a bit brooding. Some readers will wonder if it is too smart; if, in style and tone, intelligence has conquered feeling in paralyzing ways. It certainly seems to have done so in several of the major characters. They are oddly desperate and oddly blocked. 

We meet Ben and his classmates during their senior year at Bailey Academy, a co-ed New Hampshire boarding school designed to discover and promote the ambitions of a privileged generation — and/or its parents.

Beattie’s handling of how these classmates interact, especially how they speak to one another, is remarkable. So is the anonymous narrating voice, who seems, at times, like an invisible overseer of the teenagers’ potentialities and handicaps — like someone who may have graduated from Bailey a decade or so back and can guess what they’re going through.

Positioned somewhere in between this voice and those of the students is Pierre LaVerdere’s. This master teacher is a complex personality who challenges his students in ways that don’t always seem responsible. LaVerdere manages the school’s honor society, but honor means different things to different people.

Beattie

LaVerdere is youthful and easily relates to his charges. Sometimes, he seems too close to them; sometimes, his closeness feels like an act — a test. He is a brilliant talker who knows how to take full advantage of his charm. But one suspects a hollowness within.

The students are going through the usual crises: Their nuclear families are breaking down through divorce and/or illness. Generational tensions are accelerating. In September of 2001, the fall of the Manhattan towers and part of the Pentagon introduces an unfathomable element into their lives.

Has something about dependable dreams and life patterns changed forever?

Beattie, to her credit, resists the temptation of laying it on too thick. She carefully times the occurrences, character, and intensity of her 9/11 references. They invade Ben’s consciousness — or the reader’s — in ways that compromise progress in Ben’s adult life. He and his Bailey cohort are having trouble betting on the future or even gauging the “really” in “What do I really want?”

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  A Wonderful Stroke of Luck

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Melting pot Boston in mid-twentieth century explored from Jewish perspective

Review by Philip K. Jason

My Mother’s Son, by David Hirshberg. Fig Tree Books. 368 pages. Hardcover  $23.95.

This is one beautiful book. It portrays a pivotal period in U. S. history flavored by the scrambling lives of European immigrants, their acculturated children, and their more fully Americanized grandchildren. Its action springs from family and historical events of 1952-1953, though it manages to cover decades both before and after. The narrator, not yet thirteen as the story begins, is looking back from near the twentieth century’s end. His name is Joel. At one point he is told that he wasn’t named for anyone in particular, but for the Jews as a whole.

The shadow of the Holocaust haunts Joel’s family, and for very good reasons that are made clear in the stretches of family history and family memory that run through the book. The Korean War is threatening to become the next world war.  The polio epidemic is on everyone’s mind. On the local level, Boston’s beloved Braves, a baseball team with which so many identify, may be preparing to relocate to Milwaukee. The seeds are being planted in Boston for the future presidency of a still very young and inexperienced Massachusetts politician – a man whose Catholic identity inspires the immigrant population and points to the character of the city.  

There are signs that the keyholders of political and other kinds of power may be changing. Representing this change is Joel’s powerful grandfather – a man whose business, ostensibly furniture, interfaces with various criminal activities. Even Joel and his brother Steven are involved.

Aside from marvelously recreating the time and place action, Hirshberg does a fine job of balancing the understanding and sensibilities of the young Joel against the much older and wiser version of himself that is telling the story. The story itself grows out of the bits and pieces of the past – and the application of the past to current events – that have been the bread and butter of the radio show that has been Joel’s occupation and occupational therapy for almost fifty years, drawing a large audience.

Devices that deepen the novel with additional key perspectives include most notably entries in his Aunt Rose’s diary. Rose is the most enigmatic character in the novel. Her attempts to come to terms with the Holocaust, with her years of travel as a circus performer, her transit to the United States, and her relationship to her husband Jacob– whose long preparation for death is a chilling strand of this complex, vividly detailed, yet  richly satisfying novel.

Conversations between family kingpin “Papa” Mischal (Rose’s father) and his lieutenants Murph Feldman and Moses O’Neil (whose names are symbols of the immigrant melting pot) explore the motives behind the shady dealings out of which Boston’s family, community, and political lives are constructed. It’s payback time for repressed or humiliated minorities.

Hirshberg

And these underhanded enterprises are presented in colorful prose vignettes that suggest a kind of innocence to the era while admitting to its harsh edges.

Although the early 1950s period is the core of the book and the fulcrum of Joel’s meticulously painted coming-of-age self-portrait, Hirshberg understands the need for readers to discover the steps that lead to the grandfatherly Joel whose voice has dazzled his listeners for so many decades. He allows us summary glances at Joel’s high school and college years, his military service, and his lifelong situation of needing to wrestle with important and transformational secrets about identity and the many faces of love.

It may seem curious that Hirshberg, after concluding his narrative, adds a glossary of foreign language terms – the list reinforcing the polyglot nature of Boston at the middle of the twentieth century. This spray of German, Hebrew, Irish, Italian, and Yiddish – plus a dash of Latin – suggests how the various ethnic groups interacted with one another, and in an unexpected manner, it enriches the cultural broth.

The glossary is also a reminder, if one is needed, that this is a very Jewish book – Jewish in the American way of successive generations being influenced by and reshaping a vanishing but not quite extinguished past. It is a world of Hebrew School lessons, Yiddish phrases being maintained and even penetrating the dominant non-Jewish community, and ethnic foods and – of course – memories. There are stories hidden until they must be revealed. There are other stories repeated and reshaped, perhaps with no expiration date.

I have not addressed the title of the book because to do so carries the likelihood of giving away something important too soon. I say this, dear reader, to entice you to this beautifully prepared feast of wisdom and discovery.

This essay appears in the May 2018 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

 

 

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Sadness Is a White Bird: A Novel

  • By Moriel Rothman-Zecher. Atria Books. 288 pp. Hardcover $26.00.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict comes to life in this devastating tale of friendship and tragedy.

Searing in its beauty, devastating in its emotional power, and dazzling in its insights, Moriel Rothman-Zecher’s debut novel, Sadness Is a White Bird, is, I promise you, like nothing you’ve ever read.

If I’m wrong, you’ve been luckier than I have. His particular vision of today’s Israel, told through a coming-of-age story, will break your heart.

Has this author named himself, or has he grown into his name? After the hyphen, the name translates (from Hebrew) into “memory”; the first name into something like “God is my teacher.” There is something in a name.

The book’s protagonist and narrator, Jonathan, has returned to Israel in his late teens. He looks forward to joining the Israel Defense Force, in part to honor his freedom-fighter grandfather. His life undergoes a radical change after he meets and becomes intimate with Laith and Nimreen — dynamic Arab-Israeli brother-and-sister twins with whom he shares his deepest thoughts.

The three are inseparable. Their closeness offers a hint of hope for the remaking of Jewish-Arab relations. Indeed, for the remaking of Israel, almost by osmosis, as a peaceful, co-national state.

Can you love and admire people so deeply that the barriers between you are conquered? Will the real world even allow it?

The closer Jonathan comes to his military induction date, the more his various strands of identity are stressed. How can he become a soldier who will be at war with his dear friends’ people? How can he become an agent of their disgrace and humiliation?

For all of their ease with the Israeli brand of Western culture, Laith and Nimreen are, at a deep level, strangers. This is true even though they are the children of Jonathan’s mother’s friend.

Moriel Rothman-Zecher

The story, told by Jonathan, is presented as if he is addressing Laith. Sometimes, it seems as if he is rehearsing or imagining the conversation; at other times, it’s as if it’s really happening. Occasionally, it’s as though he’s addressing a dead person.

There is almost nothing of Laith responding, yet there are other scenes in which these friends are engaged in three-way conversations that are amazingly revealing.

Jonathan wavers somewhat before fully committing to his required military duty. And he wavers again when pressed into putting down a potentially dangerous demonstration. In the aftermath of the skirmish, Jonathan is imprisoned by his superiors.

The novel sings out in the distinctive voices of Rothman-Zecher’s characters, in their almost palpable presence, and in their hopes and hesitations. The authenticity of the voices is especially strong in the scenes populated by Jonathan’s friends, all serving in or inevitably bound for the IDF.

Rothman-Zecher shows great skill in portraying different neighborhoods, not only in terms of physical characteristics, but also through capturing the cultural and atmospheric dimensions. As an author/narrator, he seems to be on familiar ground. One wonders to what degree the novel is rooted in direct, if transformed, experience. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: Sadness is a White Bird. 

This review was reprinted, by permission, in the July-August 2018 issue of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), and the July 2018 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

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“The Orphan’s Tale,” by Pam Jenoff

Jenoff

Can you imagine a Holocaust-related story that features circus performers? Can you imagine the Nazi regime, as it spreads across Europe, tolerating these vagabond entertainers? Historical facts support Jenoff’s imaginative story of hidden Jews, vulnerable women, younger and older lovers, twisting loyalties, and valiant spirits in The Orphan’s Tale, a colorful and moving dual narrative.

 

Jenoff tells her tale through two alternating characters whose similarities and differences bring out the best and the worst in each. Noa is a troubled teenager whose pregnancy leads to her parents casting her out. She seeks a means to support herself, and longs for the child she is forced to give up. Noa looks the perfect Aryan, but her baby does not. Her journey leads to the discovery of a boxcar filled with infants. One of the babies seems familiar to her. She takes him in her arms and can’t let go of it. After she discovers that the tiny boy is circumcised, Noa finds a hiding place in a milk delivery truck and takes the baby with her. . . .

To read the entire Jewish Book Council Review, click here: The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff | Jewish Book Council

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