(these blogs were first published in the Visiting Scribe series of the Jewish Book Council’s Prosen People. bit.ly/1Kmyx0r and bit.ly/20f0Cjx)
Over the course of publication of four novels, I have become aware of a personal truth that eluded me in the previous thirty odd years of writing seven unpublished ones. Hold your breath. Here it comes.
I write historical fiction. That is, historical fiction is my métier. I am it and it is me.
When I look back on my writing career – battle-scarred veteran that I am – I can see that whenever I wrote novels of the present era or ventured into the more rarefied territory of allegory, there was something missing, at the very least from the marketing point of view. But there may have been deeper flaws than market. It may be that my sensibilities are most harmonious with cultural tropes gone by. It may be that my gut finds indigestible modernist poses, especially about things Jewish, the current antipathy towards all things Israeli, for example, or the general lack of respect for the pious life, one I fail at living but greatly admire. Or it may be something entirely different.
I have always been enchanted by the past. I grew up on a diet of music, books, and film from my parents and grandparents eras, their libraries and oral traditions. Long before I knew something of Rashi, my spiritual guides were Frank Capra, Verdi and Puccini, Dickens, the Brontes, Hugo, and Balzac. Enshrined in their work were icons of virtue, blessing, and tragedy: The Working Stiff, The Fallen Woman, The Mother, The Child, The Drunken Poet, The Kindly Grandfather, The Tortured One, and The Villain, who could take many forms including The Fat Cat, The Overseer, The Seducer, The Strong Arm. I also learned from the same sources that each of these icons could contain bits and pieces of its opposite, that nothing was as simple as it seemed in a manner very different from both melodrama and postmodern cynicism. There was always a universal humanity, classic set pieces of contradiction, in my childhood icons. They had resonance for me, even as a precocious child absorbing stories above her grade level. Sixty years later, I admit I still find them the truest models I know of real life.
But on whom were they modeled? One need look no further than the Tanakh to find the most glorious array of human archtypes ever gathered in one place. Take human frailty for example. Where in all of literature are there better examples than an angry Moses, a lustful David, a jealous Cain, a drunken Noah? I don’t think it’s an accident that before Dickens, before the Brontes, my first childhood books were picture books of Bible stories, stories and characters that consumed my imagination even then.
At present, we live in a world where the common wisdom has it that truth is elusive and personal, good is defined by political desires, evil judged nonexistent, at least in the traditional sense. No small wonder then that a writer of my proclivities needs to travel back in time to exercise her favored images of heroes and heroines, antagonists and forces of nature in which the Voice of God bellows warning into deaf, unwilling ears. Back then, I am home. My historical people can breathe, walk, love, sin, expiate, and sacrifice. In the present, they might only be objects of fun. But when they are set in the past, readers find resonance, recognition, and are moved.
In the cannon of Christian philosophy, it is clear that both Thomas Aquinas and Augustine described the Jews as “witnesses to history”. These men considered Jewish existence a vital part of God’s plan. They viewed Jews as eternal outliers, dispersed throughout the world, functioning as sacred historians, designed to suffer, digest, and report on the adventures and misadventures of both Christian and pagan narratives. As a Jew, a Jew who writes historical fiction, their thesis works for me. But there’s another, a more Jewish take on history and memory.
The public memory is exceedingly short. I’ve mentioned in the past on these very pages that it astonishes me that people are forgetful of history as recent as fifty years in the past, let alone one hundred. I’ve met Jewish and gentile individuals who are vigilant, intense on the issue of American racism who have never heard of the White Citizens Councils of the ‘50s. I’m talking about Southerners whose parents lived through the civil rights terror in ways Northerners could never imagine, even those brave souls who spent a few weeks of their summers as voter registration workers during their student years. Non-Jews especially are poorly informed of old world pogroms and of the pre-Nazi, millennia-long flight of stateless Jews murdered en masse or hounded from country to country by state sponsored anti-Semites.
In my most recent novel, An Undisturbed Peace, I emphasize a curious correspondence between the Jewish and Native American Experience, obvious to any who know and compare the history of both peoples. Unfortunately, the catalogue of events afflicting Native Americans before The Trail of Tears is as obscured in modern memory as the two thousand years of Jewish Exile and oppression before World War II. I’ve been told over and over by advance readers of the novel “I never knew about that” or “Surely, you made this part up” when all I’ve done is take fleshed out characters and plopped them into the seamy caldron of historical fact.
Many of my fellow authors have chosen the Holocaust as subject, in the honorable and necessary effort to make sure the world never forgets. I find I cannot go there. The idea intimidates. The Holocaust is a most holy literary ground and I fear I may be too profane an author to render it properly. I leave works on the Holocaust to those with a deep familial connection or some other hook embedded inside their souls that pulls them into that dark, horrific time. I respect any creative mind taking up the challenge.
For now, I prefer to never forget, to witness the forces that shaped the world that allowed the Holocaust to happen. Why was America so slow to enter World War II? People knew or at the very least strongly suspected what was happening to the Jews of Europe, no matter how they covered their tracks or rationalized later on. Was it a hardness of national heart fostered by a history of slavery, racial oppression, rapacious settlers, Native American land grab and death march? These things are also matters we must never forget. As Aquinas and Augustine knew, there were Jewish witnesses all along the way. I plan to do my part in delivering their reports.