Readers can often benefit from learning history through fiction, a testament to historical fiction’s enduring popularity. An author can “know” a fictional character more deeply, creating a more sympathetic, moving and personal portrait than an historical figure might make. This in turn gives the reader deeper empathy and a more personal experience of history.
Three new historical novels, all from foreign authors, bring us to different times in Jewish history, offering some insight into specific periods spanning about a century of time.
Gratitude, by the Hungarian-Canadian author Joseph Kertes (St. Martin’s, cloth, $26.99), explores Hungarian Jewry’s short but traumatic entry into the Holocaust, starting with the 1944 Nazi invasion, through the end of the war. Until the moment of invasion, Hungarian Jews and gentiles lived under an illusion of protection they assumed the Hungarian-German alliance gave them. Kertes dramatically captures the speed at which the Nazis move to violate and dismantle the lives, confidence and patriotism of those Jews.
We learn the facts through the characters of the Beck family in Budapest, whose first hint of the future comes when they take in Lily, the sole Jewish survivor of her village’s ruthless evacuation by Nazi and Hungarian soldiers. Their individual and group actions show the range of experience of survivors and martyrs alike. Some are killed, some hide, and some become Swedish citizens under the auspices of Raoul Wallenberg, a small, but important character in the book. Jewish and gentile characters are pulled into the maelstrom. Some go to the camps, some disappear, and as the living nightmares churn on, we see how people react — some driven to action, some to despair, and some to heroism.
In Valley of Strength, (Toby, cloth, $24.95), Israeli novelist Shulamit Lapid novelizes a period not often given much thought.
While we tend to draw a direct line between the Holocaust and the creation of modern Israel, more than 50 years before that, horrific pogroms were sweeping across Eastern Europe, driving many to emigrate.
Written in Hebrew in 1982 and only recently translated into English, Valley tells the story of Fania, a 16-year-old girl, the sole survivor of her village’s pogrom, who arrives in Ottoman-ruled Palestine in the late 19th century with her deranged brother, her intellectual uncle, and her baby, a product of rape. Desperate to keep her shameful secret, and to become a productive member of society, she hastily agrees to marry a farmer and moves to the remote farm settlement of Gai Oni, now the town of Rosh Pinah. Through Fania’s life we learn the early history of the area and of Israel’s earliest European immigrants who, side by side with their Arab neighbors, struggled to make a living off an unyielding land.
The writing is dense, as much Israeli fiction is, and the book is peppered with historical details unfamiliar to most casual American readers, but it’s worth taking the time to look things up — as I often did —to fill in this piece of Israeli history.
From 20th-century terror we move to 21st-century terrorism in The Fourth Target, by Nik Klieman (independent, paper, $15). I only finished this book, by an American-born Israeli, a former El Al publicist, because it has map of Washington on the cover with an alarming flag pin stuck into Tacoma, marking it as a target of terrorism.
Seattle was an Islamicist terrorist target in 2001 and Portland (also in the book) was targeted in 2010, and we know that airline terrorism is a real and current threat, so nothing in the book’s premise rings untrue.
The main character, journalist Jonathan Summers, is an airline terrorism expert who becomes an amateur detective, enmeshed in an international conspiracy, when his daughter is killed in an airline bombing. The book suffers from many of the problems of indie press books (the current term for self-published books). After reading a few chapters I couldn’t help whipping out my pencil and marking up the book. Despite writing, punctuation and factual problems (it’s Pike Place Market, not Pike’s Place, and it’s Puget Sound, not the Pacific!), layout and formatting issues, the story still held my interest. And, of course, I kept reading to learn the Pacific Northwest’s role in plot.
In Breakfast with the Ones You Love, by Eliot Fintushel (Bantam, paper, $12), Lea Tillem, a 16-year-old runaway with unusual powers, meets Jack Konar. Jack is building a spaceship in anticipation of the arrival of the Chosen Ones, who will in turn herald the coming of the Messiah. The author — a stand-up comic and hurdy gurdy player — thrives on word play and esoteric Jewish knowledge, and I can’t help think that in his defense he’d say that there’s nothing wilder here than some of the stories in the Tanach.
The Uncoupling, by Meg Wolitzer (Riverhead, cloth, $25.95). As in her bestselling The Ten Year Nap, Wolitzer entertains us with sharp-edged and sharp-eyed observations about modern life. “Nap” was a Manhattan book. The Uncoupling moves to a suburban New Jersey high school where a new drama teacher is staging “Lysistrata,” Aristophanes ancient Greek play in which women refuse to have sex with men until they end the Peloponnesian War.
With a touch of magical realism (and no specific Jewish content), the play casts a “spell” over the school’s faculty, staff and students, and we see what the ensuing revolt brings to this contemporary community. There are great descriptions of high school life from both the kid and adult perspective, and of married life, too. Wolitzer is expert at getting inside characters’ heads.