Book Review: Jo Joe, a Black Bear, Pennsylvania Story

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Short books, available only by download, are a recent trend.

Sally Wiener Grotta’s Jo Joe, a Black Bear, Pennsylvania Stories was sent to me in this form, which worked well for it. It is also available in paperback and hardcover.

This volume, about a Jewish mixed-race woman raised by her Christian grandparents in a rural area, seems to be intentionally designed as a tool for provoking discussion about race, prejudice, interfaith encounters, the Jewish mourning practice of sitting shiva and saying Kaddish, and dysfunctional families.

As an educator always looking out for high-school-level stories that reveal family diversity, the story also raises important psycho-dynamic issues: that some people do change over time, and how projecting expectations onto others can lead to devastating cruelty.

The violence of the rape and trauma scenes seems quite accurate. Shiva scenes of the Jewish week of mourning after burial reflect the unfortunate and common practice of people giving advice to the primary mourners. Our tradition teaches us to listen to feelings, and not offer fixes. Even so, Kaddish works its magic:

For a few brief moments, I no longer feel like a stranger, but part of something larger, grander than myself. We were brought together by death, but we’re held together by the demands of life. That peace and comfort stays with me even as the circle breaks up.

But I have some issues with the work as a whole:

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First, during this quick read I kept hoping that the obvious conclusion would not be the actual one, but the end of the tale is truly inevitable.

Secondly, the main character, who is also the most affected by violence, seems almost wooden compared to rape victims this reviewer has counseled in her roles as a rabbi, and a long-time activist in the field of rape prevention and counseling. Overall, the main character seem to be reporting on her life more than fully experiencing it. The book’s author has written an essay on the malleability of memory — an interesting matter in and of itself.

Third, an aphorism says that between the liberal cities of Philadelphia and Harrisburg lies Appalachia, and the book proves this point. The characters seem caricatured; many of them would readily fit into an episode of Northern Exposure, or the townies of the recent film, Nebraska.

I kept wishing for brief film clips, rather than having to “get the picture” by reading the by-the-book style of writing:

“Hello Judith, don’t suppose you recollect me.”

A woman stands over me, but not too close, as though she’s hesitant to encroach.

About 65, she’s painfully thin, with that strained scrawny appearance of one who’s fought her way through a hard life and survived. Her face is rough and deeply lined; her nose and mouth twisted and papered with small scars. Her dull dark brown hair is streaked with yellowing gray swathes, but tightly groomed, not a strand escaping the bun at her neck. Though decades out of fashion, her flowered dress is starched and spotless…

For some contexts this form of writing can work well, especially for entry-level writing classes, and high school settings, where discussion of the powerful contemporary themes will be of great benefit.