First of all, let me disclose the fact that I am agnostic, meaning that I am not within this book’s targeted audience whatsoever. That targeted audience is primarily those that are Evangelical Christians. When reviewing this work, I will primarily take that into consideration, as it is always fair and judicious to work that perspective into any analysis of a published novel. Also, I will not comment, or evaluate, any insinuations or implications of an author’s viewpoints based upon material within the story, as that would be grossly unfair and illogical, to extrapolate such things from a fictional work, including multiple characters with contrasting viewpoints and life experiences. Any comments on this review that are uncivil, vulgar, or gossip-ridden in nature will not be approved, on the basis that I don’t think they’re very substantive and hardly pertinent to a discussion about the content of the book.
My overall impressions of Kate Breslin, as an author, is that she most definitely did some thorough research about the ghetto that serves as the story’s setting. Also, the prose itself is exacting, descriptive ( even while being a tad too superfluous at times), fairly measured/rhythmic, even though again a few parts showed moments of uninspired, hackneyed qualities. While others suffered from perhaps too much histrionics of emotions, meaning that some of the romance sequences were a tad too melodramatic and too “expediently developed.” Nonetheless, these tender romance scenes, taken within the context of the genre Kate Breslin is writing within, would not contain any of the qualities for readers that are far more use to the stylistic choices made with this type of writer.
Tone-wise, the story was written with a nice balance of light, headier moments (hinting on the possibility of edification) within some of the most morose, miserable, soul-crushing type of conditions possible, that being a ghetto (or transit camp, formally called in the midst of World War II. Stella, the main protagonist, for the most part, reads convincingly, as a fairly clever, quick-witted, and brave female protagonist. And Aric Von Schmidt, the Nazi SS colonel she pines after, and eventually falls in love with, comes across as a domineering male love interest (another trope, typical of the romance genre), who is experiencing doubt about his actions, taking under the auspices of loyally following the rule of Hitler. The story dabbles into his past, and his youthful ambitions and naive zeal for Hitler and the Nazi regime during the early portions of the 1930’s, right around the time when Hitler seized power over Germany. The story sometimes presents this stuff in an allusive way, almost discrete fashion, in that we never get a full portrait of his backstory, only very faint traces of some conceptual picture of just what impelled Aric to become part of the Nazi Army without the reservations he displays now, sometimes beyond his full consciousness of all of them.
And the romance between Stella (her Jewish name is “Hadassah”) and him again is competently developed, for the most part. Many reviewers had concerns about the relationship being one that was indicative of Stockholm Syndrome. To some extent, this does make sense, considering that Aric does seem to imply that without her consenting to his advances, she’d essentially be doomed, and there is most definitely a strong implication that the reason she agrees to his advances is the fear of losing her chance for salvation, or being spared the grim fate shared by her people. Yet there is also some strong evidence too that she develops these feelings for him- the hope that she can help him redeem himself, experience contrition for his past actions and wrongs committed against her people.
Much of the internet controversy really is borne out of writing that sometimes doesn’t fill in enough blanks,and perhaps leaves things up to the reader to make certain insinuations, whenever the writer doesn’t clearly develop them. Most, if not all, the alleged antisemitic content is due mainly to a lack of any crucial insights and details as to the Jewish faith. I will say that the criticisms of some readers about this story’s absence of meaningful details, as to details about the distinctive beliefs of the Jewish people, were very much lacking. Sometimes, there were questionable moments where certain Christianized concepts were used in place of authentic Jewish beliefs. Certain words,phrases, and concepts used by the two Jewish characters, including Joseph and Uncle Morty for example, felt a bit unrealistic for this reason. There was just not enough sufficient details about the Jewish people in this story, and Stella/Hadassah never really comments too much on her religious upbringing, there are never really any details as to just what type of religious or spiritual perception she had.
Again, I am not certain this would warrant “antisemitism,” I think much of this lack of any meaningful details, as to the Jewish faith, is derived from general ignorance of Judaism as a religion, distinctive from Christianity, with its own very rich history. Scholar Karen Armstrong once commented in an interview with Bill Moyers that “up until that point, my religious life had been very parochial, been very Catholic, and I’d never thought of Judaism as anything but the kind of prelude to Christianity, and I’d never thought about Islam at all.” I can attest to this same ignorance about the two other very comprehensive, rich monotheistic traditions, as a former Christian. I knew very little, if anything, about Judaism when I was a Christian. I thought that their celebrations of Hanukkah and Passover, in place of conventional Christian holidays around this same time, were the only real marked differences of either religion. It took me till the age of 21, after becoming Agnostic, to first read Karen Armstrong’s dense, seminal nonfiction work: History of God. Before that, I knew very little of it, and my ignorance was limited to the strange, unquestioned belief in the concept of hell, being somewhere where everyone else that was markedly different from myself, in terms of religion, were consigned to this eternal scheme of a holocaust without a chance for salvation or recourse. As to why heaven lacks a real sophisticated judicial system, I can only comment that heaven’s hierarchy, seems to be much more of a monarchical, perhaps oligarchical religion, and is very rarely democratic. Obviously these are just anthropomorphic notions we have, not reflecting anything authentic about places no one even know exists, let alone have witnessed to be able to provide a coherent account (there’s the agnostic in me speaking..).
I really don’t think the antisemitism was intentional, or something done in an injurious way. Yes, I do think it is there, but I think it quite honestly is fairly innocuous, and again, borne out of Evangelical ignorance, as to other religions. Or perhaps, there wasn’t much space in the narrative to really elaborate on these details. Again as a former Christian, I would probably have not seen it, unless I knew anything about Judaism outside of my Christian experience. The story itself is really not all that offensive, in isolation, because many more offensive works have been written, making all this controversy seem a bit overwrought. I mean, this book reads quite effectively as a “parable,” as a hypothetical “What if?” type of historical fiction story, geared for Evangelical Christian readers. For them, this is a work that will probably leave them feeling enraptured, fulfilled. Kate Breslin’s ability to weave a powerful, emotionally-drive story is definitely commendable, her pacing is impeccable
But the contrivances, as to the conversion or the spiritual insights as to the characters, feel very anemic. Not only is Judaism not presented as a distinctive, complex religion, apart from Christianity, Christianity is even lacking in any sophistication within this story, in that Stella/Hadassah’s struggles don’t feel realistic, as they lack any real depth, with respects to the trauma she is experiencing. Maybe, the lack comes from Kate Breslin’s excellent poetic prose serve to allegorically point to deeper depths, as to her internal spiritual struggles, but I felt much of it was largely contrived in nature, feeling like a certain “magic bible” was inserted at certain pivotal moments to act as a substitute for any intense, meaningful reflection on the part of Hadassah, as to her conversion. You just never get a strong, or convincing enough feeling that she and other Jewish characters are authentically Jewish, which again I think where people are insinuating that there is erasure of Jewish culture and identity going on. Perhaps, that is what you can call it, to be fair, the evidence is clearly there, but my own conclusions drawn about the reasons for this is again innocuous/ignorant antisemitism, just general lack of knowledge among some Evangelical Christians about the uniqueness and complexity of other religions apart from their own. And maybe, that’s just the way we’re seeing it as outside observers, my own bias might stem from my own misgivings about a certain form of Christianity. Again, I encourage people to come to their own judgments on the material. I think it’s a book well worth reading, even to discuss the different takes, or diverse ways historical fiction can be written.
Does the novel succeed in erasure of the true grisly trauma and horror of the Holocaust? Not exactly. The author actually does incorporate some clear, sometimes visceral details of the human rights violations, and truly morally unconscionable crimes of the Nazis during the Holocaust. Aric comes across as someone, reluctant to do any of it, but his fate is sealed by the machinery of warfare that I think locks/entraps the consciences of many sensitive, moral people to a type of machine of relentless immorality. Meaning, there is neither justice, morality, or elements of either noble quality within the true amorality of warfare. So I never really felt there was total “erasure” of the holocaust whatsoever. The story is written as a romantic take on the story, and it follows the conventional structure of romances as they were originally structured by Shakespeare, as a story that is resolved in a way that the events lead to enlightenment, optimism, and happiness. And again, the story was also inspired by the Esther story, so you know that liberties with history were going to be taken, to provide an entirely fictitious, hypothetical outcome, opposite to the more brutal, grim outcome for this story in reality. It’s only erasure if you take fiction stories far too literally. I think people pointing this out are being exaggerated in their claims, at least with respects to this; I don’t think any sane, intelligent reader will suddenly take this story as “actual history.” It’s a romance, set during the Holocaust, and if it is following the Shakespearean code/structure for romances, it will have an ending that is one of optimism and hope.
The ending felt a bit rushed and a tad too Hollywoodized for me. For the most part, I don’t quite understand or comprehend the intensity of people’s reactions. Perhaps, much of the stuff they’re discussing is stuff I mostly find typical of the Evangelical Christian community. I don’t see it as something as monstrously egregious, as they do, because it seems really commonplace within the Evangelical Christian community. Perhaps though, this discussion could constructively promote more meaningful education for Evangelical Christians and others, as to Jewish history, culture, and the complexity of Judaism’s history as a religion with an understated rich history of its own. (I’ve been a big proponent for more in-depth religious studies (all religions) in our schools for that reason.)
Much of the problems with this story stems more from routine problems that I think most first novels, from any novelist faces. I look forward to reading another Kate Breslin story, mostly because I really like her descriptive prose for the most part. I think much of the divisive issues are caused perhaps by too much dependence on romance genre tropes (often seen by critics as romanticizing “Stockholm syndrome”) and inevitable omission of any crucial details or insights into the Judaic religion, or Jewish culture, which is mostly contributing to people’s very emotional responses to the controversial elements of this story. Again, I think some of it may has been overstated just a bit for my tastes, though I do understand the passion lurking beneath the emotional responses. I understand how hard it is for not just the writer, but also the reader,to read stories dealing with such a profoundly difficult event like the holocaust.
For the most part, the book is solidly written, with some very poignant, well-written moments, and a rich edifying message of hope/redemption in times of grave misery/crushing hopelessness. There are again some strong problems with too many plot contrivances (for my liking), dependence on hackneyed romance genre tropes, and a lack of any real, crucial insights as to the Jewish community/ Judaic religion within the story (specially as it relates to the character’s spiritual/religious struggle).