Rabbi Milton Steinberg’s “As A Driven Leaf” is possibly one of the most widely read works of modern Jewish-themed fiction. Published in 1939 and reissued in 1996 by Behrman House, it has inspired generations. Steinberg was a leading Jewish scholar, popular speaker and defender of Zionism who died in 1950 at age 46.
About 15 years ago, publisher David Behrman was told of an unfinished novel Steinberg was working on when he died, and he received permission to publish “The Prophet’s Wife” (Behrman, cloth/paper/Kindle, various prices). Rather than have another writer complete it, he published it unfinished with closing essays by Professor Ari Goldman of Columbia University, Rabbi Harold Kushner and novelist Norma Rosen.
Formed from the barest thread of information, this biblical novel focuses on the prophet Hosea and his wife Gomer, who came “from whoredom” (JPS translation). Steinberg imagined them as childhood friends who marry despite class differences and family disapproval, creating two humanly flawed characters beset by tragedy. Despite the title, it’s much more about Hosea, and what really shines through is Steinberg’s depiction of life in 8th century BCE Israel.
The opportunity to read a work in the making is as interesting as the story itself. While the book’s potential is clear, this raw version is overly long — Steinberg would surely have edited it. The writing is a bit old fashioned, yet part of the entertainment is imagining how the author might have completed it. Goldman, Kushner and Rosen help readers puzzle through this.
Alan Cheuse’s “Song of Slaves in the Desert: A Novel of Slavery and the Southern Wild” (Sourcebooks, cloth, $25.99) presents us with a number of interesting ideas, but multiple story lines and large amounts of varied information pull the book apart rather than bring it together.
Cheuse — NPR’s book reviewer and a writing teacher at George Mason University —follows and then intertwines the lives of three very different characters. Nathaniel Pereira is a young Jewish man from New York whose father sends him to inspect the family rice plantation in the mid-19th–century South. There he meets his cousin Jonathan, the owner of Liza, the family’s beautiful and enchanting house slave, and he falls in love.
Cheuse brings many fascinating historical details to the novel. He traces Liza’s family back to Timbuktu and the beginning of the slave trade. He vividly describes the horrors of slavery, of the ship crossing, the physical and sexual abuse of the captives, and the slave market, which causes Nathaniel to be sick to his stomach.
The idea that Jews were slaveholders in the South is intriguing, and Cheuse explores those contradictions, contrasting the lives and culture of Northern and Southern Jews (none of them particularly observant here). Part of the book’s problem is the density of each story line. Nathaniel or Liza’s stories could have stood alone, and Cheuse could have easily written a history book. The author seems overly focused on the sexual tension between Nathaniel and Liza, as well as Jonathan and the slaves he takes advantage of. These are disturbing truths, but here Cheuse seems to eroticize them inappropriately.
Three more novels, all written by non-Americans, have the Holocaust at their core, or perhaps more as a shadow that darkens the lives of the characters. If these represent Holocaust fiction, that genre seems to be moving toward exploring the long-term impact of the Shoah on survivors and subsequent generations. Each of these authors brings a piece of her family history to the stories.
The beautifully written and intriguing “I Am Forbidden,” by French novelist Anouk Markovits (Hogarth, cloth, $25), opens in 1939 Transylvania and focuses on two sisters grow up in a Hasidic Satmar home. Mila was adopted after her parents were killed during the war, and she and her stepsister Atara become fast friends. The family moves to Paris, where their father has been sent to minister a local congregation. There, Mila becomes increasingly more religious, eventually moving to Williamsburg to marry. Atara, drawn to the outside world, eventually leaves the fold. Yet it is Mila who struggles against her values and religious law when she is unable to get pregnant.
Even though this is her first novel in English, Markovits writes beautifully, bringing a slightly mystical quality to a gripping and tragic story about belief, faith and family. The author, we are told, left her Satmar family to escape an arranged marriage.
Canadian author Alison Pick’s second novel, “Far to Go” (Harper, paper, $14.99), is about the Bauer family, assimilated, upper-middle class Czechoslovakian Jews devoted to their homeland. The Bauer’s young, gentile nanny, Marta, is very attached to their son Pepik. None of them has a clear grasp on the political changes happening around them.
Naïve and uneducated, Marta inadvertently betrays the family to Nazi invaders, but tries to redeem herself by helping get Pepik on a Kindertransport. Pick paints a sad and vivid picture of a family in distress, a young woman’s disquiet and a boy’s tragic loss.
“The House at Tyneford” by British author Natasha Solomon (Plume, paper, $15) is billed as a book for fans of the “Downtown Abbey” TV show. Solomon is expert at vivid descriptions of the manor house, and beautifully depicts the surrounding English countryside.
Elise Landau is a Viennese 19 year old whose parents are prescient enough to make her take a job as a maid in England. Thousands of German and Austrian young women escaped the pre-war Continent with English work visas, working mostly as domestics. Like our fictitious protagonist, they left well-off homes and were shocked by the intensely hard work as household help. (The character was inspired by the author’s great-aunt.)
While this is an absorbing story of a girl’s maturation and eventual romance with the master’s young son, Solomon’s lack of treatment of the Holocaust leaves a gap in the story. I assume this was a deliberate choice, knowing the horror has been depicted elsewhere and often. So while Elise pines for her parents and learn specifics of her mother’s death, her lack of curiosity about her friends’ and family’s fates may leave the Jewish reader, at least, slightly puzzled.