In Praise of Historicals

— by Hannah Lee

Much of what I know about the world comes from reading historical novels. Beyond the wars and the political intrigues, these books bring to life the daily struggles of their characters. The best ones portray memorable characters, but this article is about their ability to shed light on little-known aspects of history.

One such book is the new Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes, in which the emancipated black workers of a Southern sugar plantation await the arrival of Chinese farm workers. The able-bodied have left for a new life in the North, so the only ones left are the elderly, the fearful, and the orphaned 10-year-old Sugar, who hates her given name. The Chinese men are young and strong, but the major difference is that they chose to come, to escape famine back home.

The fictive angle is the rapprochement initiated by Sugar between the blacks and the Chinese, creating a community of neighbors who shared their skills in healing and cooking. They swapped stories of Br’er Rabbit, and of the 12 animals named by the Jade Emperor to the Chinese zodiac. This is a finely written book, with realistically drawn characters.

More after the jump.

The book taught me a new aspect of Chinese history. What was extra special was that the author learned about it from a scholarly book written by a Jew, Lucy M. Cohen, titled Chinese in the Post-Civil War South: A People Without History. (That closed the cultural triangle for me.)

Another fascinating book is The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden by Robert J. Avrech, who is better known for his screenplays for the films “Body Double,” “A Stranger Among Us,” and the Emmy award-winning young adult film, “The Devil’s Arithmetic.” The book has a cast of familiar real characters, such as the Apache chiefs, Geronimo and Victorio, and the outlaw Doc Holliday, but it also introduced me to Lozen, Victorio’s younger sister who was respected as a fighter, medicine woman, and midwife. She sat on war councils, and chose not to marry, which was unusual for an Apache maiden.

The hero of the book is Ariel, who is about to mark his Bar Mitzvah, as his family is making their way across the United States after fleeing from one of the pogroms that terrorized the Jews of Russia. Ariel and his family are fictive, but they represent the thousands of Jews who sought freedom in the western expansion of the United States. Especially pleasurable for me were the gems of wisdom from the Talmud and Torah, that Ariel had learned from his father, who had semicha (rabbinic ordination) from the great Rabbi Velvel Soloveitchik, also known as the Brisker Rav.

Just as the present day Dalai Lama learned from the Jewish exodus and diaspora, Lozen learned from Ariel that it is difficult for a tribe of people to survive without a written language:

The elders of our tribe realized that unless our laws were written down, there was the danger that the ways of our people would be forgotten. They understood that for a small tribe to survive among larger and more powerful tribes, the Jews had to build a fence — an invisible fence — around the tribe. This fence was made of words and ideas.

Finally, it was a rare delight to read about a family who observes traditional Jewish rituals even in the difficult terrain of frontier life. As a Hollywood professional, Avrech has written a gripping tale, with cliffhangers that lure the reader to continue. Sadly, the book is dedicated to the memory of his son, Ariel Chaim.