Book Review: Pazuzu’s Girl by Rachel Coles

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Rachel Coles’ use of science fiction and fantasy in Pazuzu’s Girl allows her to creatively convey a contemporary version of the immigrant family’s teen-parent cultural divide: the agility of youth in adapting, prejudices encountered, and the parental frustrations and foibles. Written in the action language and imagery style of a teen movie, the literally alien father, daughter and her peers also suffer the horrific overreaction of the single parent father with his super-temper and super-powers. Another theme is the daughter’s learning to respect and love a human student who isn’t so much hot and hip as genuinely supportive and caring. Pazuzu’s Girl raises a fundamental question for teens: when to obey a parent, and when parental commands must be set aside for the sake of survival.

More after the jump.
The relevance of this work, when paired with the following mitzvot, makes this book relevant for Hebrew high school and day school settings:

  1. The Fifth Commandment: Honor Parents — kibud av v’em. Educators and parents may want to have teens explore why this mitzvah doesn’t instead read unconditionally to “obey your parents” and neither is written in the Torah or tradition that one must love one’s parents. It is a good time to see that the Mishna, in the Kiddushin tractate, says this mitzvah requires a child to ensure their parents are, when unable to do so for themselves, fed, given fluids, dressed, shoed and transported as needed, and to understand this in synergy with the mitzvah of ezrat cholim — helping those who are ill or frail.
  2. Another traditional take is to associate the mitzvah of hakarat ha-tov (acknowledging the good) with honoring one’s parents, naming the good they have done and acknowledging it to them and others. This is while they are alive, and also after their souls have ascended in death, through saying Kaddish and philanthropy honoring them by name. Our sages teach that this leads us to the mitzvah of yirat ha-shem (God fearing): the awesome/fearsome way of nature, divinely amazing and sometimes very hard to accept.
  3. The mitzvah of survival, pikuakh nefesh (soul watching) — saving a life, your own first, and then others. Here is where our sages temper the mitzvah of kibud av v’em, such that if they put you at risk with their actions, then you must act to save yourself.

Somehow secondary to the well-drawn, strong emotions of the main characters, is a plot originating from ancient Mesopotamian myths, involving a “Tablet of Destiny” that must not be found by those who would destroy the world: Pazuzu — the demon of plague, Enlil, and many other period names of gods and leaders, and even a demoness, known for killing children. A museum adventure, to learn about cultures from the times before and during the development of Judaism, could be another meaningful adjunct activity.

The author does call a bit too much on recent popular culture to have the volume stand the test of time, and the father’s ability to turn into a host of grasshoppers would likely send Michael Creighton fans into fond recollections of some of the devices in his works. But for now and all-in-all, Rachael Coles is an author to watch. Pazuzu’s Girl is a well-articulated young-adult novel, from an author with a great imagination and awareness of the challenges brought on during teenage years in the Western World. The book is available in paperback and Kindle editions.