that David played to please the Lord”–Leonard Cohen
If there was indeed such a chord, Geraldine Brooks has gone a long way toward discovering. The breadth and depth of Brooks’ literary explorations is stunning. I have written reviews of three other of her books and am working my way through a fourth. She’s carried me from ante-bellum horse racing to the Civil War and now to Deep BCE biblical history.
David has for a long time been one of my favorite historical characters because he is such a hodge-podge of contradictions. A pious and holy man, a musician, a warrior, a hypocrite, a savage betrayer of all that is sacred, a revered ancestor of one of the most revered prophets in the history of religion. He sent to death the husband of one of his rape victims. He danced naked into Jerusalem like a shameless heathen. He is one of the mightiest of generals. And yet, he composed some of the most beautiful poetry in the history of language. Doubtless if we had access to the actual music of those hymns, the melodies would have been just as wondrous.
It is said that God often chooses the weakest among us to do his greatest work. Thus Moses needed Aaron. Martin Luther King was a plagiarizer and a womanizer. LBJ, racist and political brute brought about our greatest USA civil rights actions. Not that these are quite of David’s stature or breadth of talent. But you get the point.
In many ways, Brooks has written a biography of a towering historical figure. It is told through the eyes of the prophet Nathan, who according to legend was the only one who dared tell David the truth, who labeled him to his face a murderer in the matter of Bathsheba and Uriah, among other things. Still he couldn’t keep his master on the straight and narrow. Yet brooks has composed also a portrait of a profoundly ugly human being, one capable of brutalizing and betraying family and friends for the sake of his own power. She has also dropped us into a historical period cram full of unimaginable misogyny and viciousness. The Old Testament is replete with cruelty, but in Brooks biblical world, even Nazi cruelty would have a hard time competing.
Nevertheless, in Brooks’ hands with we have the spectacle of sacred and profane existing not only side by side, but integrated into a whole human capable of a full range of every possible human greatness and depravity.
Look out for your soul. As Nathan is warning, someone is coming to get it.
A strange title, I thought, but it turned out to be incredibly appropriate. I’d expect something like “The horse that. . .” or “The 19th Century Secretariat . . ” or something to point me in some direction or another. There is a particular horse in question, but you don’t know that at first. In fact, the first animal in the narrative is an elephant. Actually, an elephant skull. We are in the company of a lady named Jess, who works as a caretaker of sorts at the Smithsonian museum of natural history. It takes a while and a lot of unwrapping to discover that the skull is not that of an elephant, but of a horse. At this point, we believe that it will be Jess who leads us through the tale of this horse skull. I was looking forward to the story, since it would be my first foray into a novel about an equine skull. Jess investigates the provenance of this hunk of bone. She has the skull dated and discovers an anomaly in the cranium. The investigation eventually leads to a whole passel facts and folks that keeps readers spellbound throughout.
It’s hard to do an in-depth review of this book without spoilers, but I’ll do my best. Along with the story of Jess, her romance, and various other characters, we follow the life of the horse whose hide once covered the skull we discovered in the first few pages. Jess’s investigation leads her from present time all the way back to the antebellum south. We focus on an enslaved black jockey and his trainer-father. It isn’t long before all the racial strife and civil war conflicts imaginable boil around us readers. And very, very deftly, Brooks brings the past into the present. It shows us how completely idiotic it is to think that that war and those conflicts are behind us.
And all this because some humans become enamored of and tangled up with Horse. Horse does have a name, and it is rewarding to find what it is and where it came from. Read the novel and see if I’m not right. In the meantime, enjoy a fine novel by a very fine writer.
The patriarch in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is Mr. March, first name unspecified. He’s a scholar, a minister, a bona fide member of the Concord, Massachusetts, intelligentsia, being a companion of such as Emerson and Thoreau. He’s also a bit of a prude and purist. Vegetarian to the point where he avoids animal matter of all kinds either for ingestion or apparel, because such substances are the property of the animal, and humans have no business eating or exploiting them. And he carries his fanaticism into the cause of abolition. In fact, it might be said that Geraldine Brooks’ splendid work is an exploration of the wages of fanaticism as much as it is an exploration of the cruelties of war.
March opens on the eve of the Civil War. in the run up to the conflict, March has devoted himself to financing the hostilities even to the extent of impoverishing his family. They go from a grand house to a bungalow, from good garments to patchwork. A good portion of the money goes to the cause of the fanatic John Brown. The Concord transcendentalists apparently provide a good portion of the money used to support the abortive Harper’s Ferry scheme whereby the captured arms the enthusiasm generated by the raid on the federal arsenal there would spark a nationwide race war and end American slavery.
That project ended with Brown’s hanging, but the abolitionist fervor still burned bright. The war began, and March signed up as a chaplain and left for South Carolina, where he became the clergy conscience of a union-captured plantation of Oak Grove, South Carolina. The union government turned the plantation over to the management of a white northerner with the idea that it would be an opportunity to turn a slave enterprise into a free market operation. The slaves would become wage earners, and profits would go to the manager. Predictably, things did not go as planned. The racist, profit-driven manager was not much better as a master than the slave master himself. There were still plenty of rebel guerrillas around who were dedicated to seeing that the whole concept failed. Crops were burned, husbandry sabotaged. Union troops vandalized and stole everything that wasn’t nailed down, deeming it their right as victors to carry away anything that could be carried.
Amid all this, March did his best to set up a school, to ameliorate the capitalist-manager’s cruelty, to arrange for medical care for the “former” slaves whom the manager neglected. The usual trappings of slavery–incest, rape, brutality still prevail. Finally, though, Oak Grove produces a bumper cotton crop. It appears that the manager will not be cast into penury after all. But all is for naught.
March contracts a fever of some sort which leaves him weakened and delirious. Without spoiling the tale too much, I’ll simply say that the journey back home to Massachusetts is difficult and enervating, yet does nothing to dim March’s enthusiasm for his cause nor to energize his obligations to his “little women.” “Moderation in all things,” said Aristotle ( I believe). Would that March had paid attention to his counsel.
I haven’t read much Malamud, though he was a dominant literary figure during the 20th century. Books like The Assistant and The Magic Barrel were widely read and discussed. Along with Arthur Herzog, Malamud was probably (at least to my limited knowledge) the premier Jewish writer of his generation. Not that either his appeal or his audience was limited to Jews, but that community was the source of his inspiration and material.
The fixer is one of the most jarring and painful tales I’ve read, which covers a lot of territory. Jakov Bok is a Russian/Ukranian handyman. Issue the call and he’ll be there with his tool box and his skills and will take whatever is malfunctioning and put it to rights. The thing is, he doesn’t make much money at it. Add to his privation the fact that he’s trapped in a childless and loveless marriage, and Jakov finally has all he can take.
He picks up his tools and his skills and heads for Kiev looking for opportunity. Right away there is trouble. Although he’s more or less atheistic/agnostic, he’s a jew. He doesn’t look particularly Jewish. He would perhaps be better off if he did. As it is, he picks up work, is promoted to a fairly responsible position, which includes an apartment near his place of work. That place is a brick factory, and one of his duties is to make sure the number of bricks the factory turns out matches the number of bricks that go out the door. Problem is, a lot of bricks go out the back door, where the workers sell them on the street and pocket the profits. Jakov incurs resentment as he polices the malefactors. Furthermore, the factory owner has a lonely daughter who lives in the same building as Jakov and who seeks to cure her loneliness by cultivating a relationship with our guy. Also, there are gangs of boys who like to use the stacks of bricks for the playground, something Jakov, the loyal employee, can’t tolerate, so he chases them off periodically. None of this things are awful in and of themselves, but when a crisis ensues, they add up.
One of the young boys Jakov has been chasing is murdered. A rumor goes out that whoever stabbed him also drained his blood, a sure sign of ritual sacrifice by a Jew or Jews who need Christian blood to satisfy their hunger for sacrifice, which originated with THE crucifixion. They’ve just got to relive that over and over.
There is an investigation. Jakov is identified as a harasser and persecutor of the boys. He has been both careless and victimized. The quarters to which his employer has most generously treated him are forbidden to Jews. He should have registered when he moved in, but to register would have involved revealing himself and wrecking his newfound road to prosperity. Right away, then, he is a suspect. Then he is arrested and jailed. Then the persecution begins. The official apparatus goes into full swing. The investigation proceeds apace. Jakov has spurned the employer’s daughter after he walked in on the verge of a liaison and saw she was menstruating. As she was unclean by his cultural standards, he refused to go through with it. Scorned, she fashions a lie or two, and he’s condemned for his attempt to attack a virtuous Christian girl. His attempt to live where he shouldn’t is taken as an attempt by a member of the world-wide Jewish cabal to infiltrate the Christian community. They do it all the time. We have to be vigilante. The number of stab wounds on the boy’s body is taken to have holy significance, though the published number and pattern of the wounds keeps changing with the ever-changing identities of the judges and prosecutors. More and more legendary stereotypes keep being attached to Jakov whether they have anything to do with him or not. He has the nose he has the hands he has the accent, the mannerisms–sure giveaways of his Jewishness. These all are signs that he’s out to trick, bedevil, and bankrupt good Christians. On some days he’ll brazenly attack you, on others he’ll trick you with one of his sly manipulations. We have to be vigilant.
While all this investigating and theorizing is going on, Jakov is in jail, suffering the most agonizing tortures the very imaginative authorities can devise. He is not allowed to read. He is once caught reading from one of the newspapers he’s been given to wipe his rear. He is whipped. No more paper. He once tried to get a message to the outside via a fellow Jew who was about to be released. His “partner” betrays him. He is chained with chains so short he cannot bring his bowl of watery soup to his mouth. He must lap it up like a dog. And on and on and on. Two and a half years he goes on like this, vainly awaiting his official indictment and all the time refusing to confess. He is made to understand that if he confesses he will be sentenced to life in Siberia or some such place but will not be executed and will no longer be confined to a cell. Jakov will admit nothing and he doesn’t trust the “promises” anyhow.
It would be hard to credit the possibilities of this story if we hadn’t had such modern examples. Witness the chant of “The Jews will not replace us” by crowds at Charlottesville recently. Evil, like rust, never sleeps
Joan of Arc is neither a neglected historical figure nor one whose life needs a great deal of explication even at our 600-year remove. A peasant girl who came out of nowhere to lead French armies against the hated and reviled English invaders, she would be a heroine in any culture to which she belonged. I’m not familiar with the kind of bio’s writers have set down for her through the centuries, but I’m guessing that Katherine Chen’s Joan is not typical. Certainly not the beneficiary of a divine visitation such as George Bernard Shaw described. No, Chen’s Joan is no Little Bo Peep.
She was a shepherd girl, yes, born into near-poverty and raised in mean circumstances. She had a dearly beloved sister who died early. Her mother seems non existent. Her father was a brute who beat her regularly. She was a big girl, big enough that when it came time to don her armor and head out to battle she was often mistaken for a man. She served valiantly and led her countrymen to many victories, inspiring her armies to head across France and toward Paris. Take Paris, and they would win it all.
However, as her palace enemies prophesied, her danger came not from the English or any other army. Instead, her prominence inspired jealousy and political infighting for which she was ill prepared to deal. Despite her battlefield prowess and the peasant origins that helped make her the idol of the populace, they were no match for the royal machinations which made individual spoils rather than French victory the priority. Joan never really comprehends her fate. She was after French victories. Her adversaries were after something else entirely.
Chen doesn’t treat us to a burning-at-the-stake scene, for which I am grateful. I am grateful as well for a portrait of this legend that neither prettifies her nor casts her as divine. Refreshing.