Tag Archives: historical fiction

The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish

I read Kadish’s work in a year that began with a pandemic and ended with wildfires that shrouded our region in smoke for two weeks. It seemed appropriate that The Weight of Ink reaches its climax in a plague and has its denouement in the Great London fire of 1666. Of course, I didn’t know about the fires forthcoming in either book or reality when I started. I read the book because it was everything I love in a novel—meticulously researched historical fiction, nuanced in its perspectives and masterful in its wordcraft.

And it included a plague—a plague long, long ago and far, far away. What could more timely? Kadish’s epic transported me to Israel, Amsterdam, and London. I traveled through time to the seventeenth century, witnessed the trials and triumphs of unacknowledged genius. It was a journey well worth the $18.99 fare.

But upon completion, I hesitated to write a review. I could not, I feared, do the book justice. For one, I am not a Jew. My ancestors have not endured millennia of persecution, prejudice, oppression, and outright genocide. That the Weight of Ink was a National Jewish Book Awards Winner substantiates its representation of experiences very other than mine.

But I also found myself ill at ease with the historical protagonist’s conclusions. In essence, the position to which the Jewish Ester comes is based on evolutionary philosophy: Life wants to live. Everything in nature strives for survival. By extension, and through a tortuous series of trials including sexism, abandonment, poverty, plague, and more, she concludes that humans, too, are justified in doing what is necessary to survive.

Ester takes this one step further and asserts that not only are we justified in strenuously defending our own physical lives, but in pursuing the style of life we were created to live. In her case, it is the right to devote herself to the life of the mind—a right denied her by her cultural milieu.

It is hard to argue with such a conclusion, especially given the trauma we witness in the pages of Ink. But I wrestled with it for some time. These two points—the right to survive and the right to pursue a meaningful existence—merit separate responses.

To address the latter first, we were inarguably created, male and female, to enjoy a life rich in the physical, spiritual, and intellectual realms. That will look different for each of us, depending on our giftings and interests. But the most essential element of the life we were created for is communion with God. To overlook that is to render meaningless the rest.

It is the first point—that “life wants to live” that is hardest to contest. As image-bearers of the Creator, we defend life—especially, but not exclusively, the powerless, the victims, the oppressed. How can we fault Ester and her contemporaries for defending their own lives? Would we not do the same?

But the question kept recurring to me: Is Ester’s position at odds with Jesus’s statement that “he who wants to save his life must lose it”?

Jesus was a Jew. He lived under an oppressive foreign government. He died an unjust death. Granted, his purpose in coming to earth was to give up his life; one could argue that that sets him apart from the rest of us mortals. On the other hand, the gospels and the epistles abound with exhortations to follow Christ’s example in laying down our lives.

Christians can do that because of our hope—and the Bible’s repeated assurance—that mortal life is not the end. By contrast, Ester writes, in her final days, “I believe in no heaven or hell, nor any world to come, yet I know not whether life be snuffed wholly by death or merely assume some unknown form. … I do not believe my soul as I know it will be allowed a single footfall beyond the threshold of death” p. (530).

Ester’s triumph over obstacles to live the life she longs for in The Weight of Ink seems ample justification for self-preservation, humanity’s most basic instinct. We breathe a sigh of relief to see her comfortably situated at the end of her story.

But isn’t that the tension Jesus followers live with? We celebrate happy endings and rejoice in God’s blessings of abundance, felicity, and successful endeavor. But when it comes to daily choices, to what extent do we follow our dreams—our giftings, our loves, our desires, our hopes—and when are we called to give them up? As a writer I constantly question the intent of my literary endeavors: To whom or what am I hoping to draw attention?

In quibbling with Ester’s conclusions, I’m not suggesting that anyone should acquiesce to injustice or that we should cease to defend the lives and livelihoods of the persecuted. There is no excuse—in history or the present—for those who oppress or tolerate oppression. But resistance can take diverse forms. What is self-serving in one may be sacrificial in another. The subtle undermining of norms may look like acquiescence.

I have little argument with Ester’s actions, or those of Helen, the protagonist of Kadish’s contemporary story line. The story opens in 2000 with the discovery of a sheaf of anonymous letters dating to the seventeenth century. The collection falls into the hands of a professor nearing forced retirement due to failing health.

In the course of the book, Helen moves from academic territorialism to a more generous professionalism. She lowers her defenses and accepts help from friends and colleagues. She forgives—albeit belatedly—a lover whose devotion to ideals wedged them apart in their youth. For that matter, Ester, too, forgives, and even cares for on his deathbed, the man whose intervention prevented her marriage to the man she truly loved.

In a 2018 Paris Review article, Kadish wrote that historical fiction is important because it introduces us to characters who represent unsung lives; individuals whose names have fallen by the wayside despite their contributions to society, culture, or the lives of others. She said she took pains that the experiences of her seventeenth-century protagonist should be plausible, as supported by Kadish’s research. Women who employed their God-given intellect against the tide of their society should be celebrated; all of us should question whether we are availing ourselves of the freedom to use ours.

I don’t need to embrace Ester’s principles. Reading Kadish’s novel can help me understand how and why Ester arrived at them. Indeed, reading works that take us beyond our own experiences is a responsibility and a privilege, especially when they are executed with such mastery as this one.

There is much to enjoy as well as endorse in Kadish’s book. Lovers and scholars confessing their failures. An ambitious professor with a callused soul learning grace and generosity. Two brilliant female minds meeting across time and distance. The interweaving of individuals and histories to affirm our common humanity. Helen observes: “It was indeed all of our history. No people’s thread was separate from any other’s, but everyone’s fate was woven together in this illuminated, love-stricken world” (531).

Kadish’s novel bears witness to this truth.

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A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

Among contemporary works of literature, Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) represents a rare combination of engaging storyline, appealing characters, master craftsmanship, and meditation on uncommon virtues. Five years after the Bolshevik Revolution, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to lifelong house arrest in a luxury hotel. His crime is writing a few lines of verse that the regime takes exception to.

The premise is intriguing though wholly fictional. A Gentleman is not so much a historical novel as a parable of modernism. While the reader waits for the blows of Soviet brutality to fall upon the hero, Towles focuses his attention on subtler evils.

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I, Juan de Pareja, by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño

Our mother-daughter book club recently elected to read this Newberry Award-winning 1965 historical novel. The reluctance registered by my fifteen-year-old, whose tastes incline heavily toward fantasy, was overridden by academically minded moms. But she soon found it much more interesting than she anticipated.

The 17th-century Spanish setting was, she said, so different as to seem almost another world. As the title suggests, the book is the fictional memoir of Juan de Pareja (1606–1670), an African slave inherited by Spanish court painter Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599–1660). The narrative devotes brief attention to Pareja’s early life, about which little is known. It then follows his journey into the household of Velazquez, who is soon summoned by King Philip IV of Spain to set up a studio in the palace.

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Pilgrim’s Inn, by Elizabeth Goudge

My husband and I have been reading out loud to one another since shortly after we got married more than twenty years ago. It all started on Cyprus with A Thousand and One Nights. Sometimes we dip into several books before landing on one we both enjoy. A year ago my husband agreed to sample Pilgrim’s Inn with me. A cousin had given it to me for Christmas, along with its prequel, The Bird in the Tree.

We were both surprised when Pilgrim’s Inn, which many would consider women’s lit, captured my husband’s interest as well as mine. What we didn’t know when we started was that it would turn out to be the perfect read not only for late winter, but for other tough and uncertain times (see note below).

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Jane of Austin: A Novel of Sweet Tea and Sensibility, by Hillary Manton Lodge

This rewrite of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility enticed me into a genre (romance) that doesn’t usually tempt me. But the skilled rendering of voices by reader Kate Hanford and the calamities visited upon the Woodward sisters in the early chapters kept me listening to the audiobook.

When West Coast transplants Celia, Jane, and Margot found themselves in Texas, whence hail my antecedents, I was hooked. All of the state’s hospitality, goodwill, gusto, and flavorful cooking come through Texas-style, larger-than-life. If the author isn’t from Texas she must at least have spent some time there.

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The White Mirror, by Elsa Hart

The White Mirror follows inadvertent investigator Li Du into the mountains after he has solved the mystery behind the murder of a Jesuit priest in Jade Dragon Mountain (click here for a brief endorsement). En route to Lhasa, the former imperial librarian finds himself snowed in amongst a company of travelers at a mountain valley inn. Click here for the complete introduction to the ensuing mystery and its milieu available on the author’s web site.

Hart’s Li Du novels present a sometimes disconcerting mix of exoticism and familiarity. The author imbues her characters and their surroundings with a sense of authenticity that makes us feel we could be watching at a wormhole into the distant world of 18th-century Qing China. But her use of standard mystery tropes and her skillful deployment of setting imparts the cozy ambience of a large, open hearth, beside which we sip a cup of puerh tea while a storyteller spins tales within and a blizzard rages without.

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The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne, by Elsa Hart

The premise of Barnaby Mayne drew me in when I first read about it, pre-publication–a mystery set amongst the curio cabinets of an 18th-century English collector of natural history. So I was elated to get my hands on a library copy in December–perfect timing for a cozy mystery.

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Grace, by Natashia Deón, Part I

I met Natashia Deón at the 2018 Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She spoke to a standing-room-only conference room on how to deal authentically with faith issues in a post-modern, pluralistic society.

Deón said much that was both practical and inspiring. But the overwhelming impression left by her presentation and my brief personal interaction with her is respect. It was the value with which Deón, a devout Christian, advised writers to handle all faiths. It was the ethic with which she invariably treated her listeners and fellow speakers. And it was the sentiment inspired by her humility, integrity, and clear thinking.

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Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield, Part I

Fiction is my first love. Duty, however, seems to dictate my reading more often than preference. So when the opportunity to curl up with a work of fiction arises, the question of what to read is critical.

Not short story; I want the immersive experience of a novel. Not escapism; it’s like being given a satin sheet when I need a down blanket. But neither do I crave a burlap bag of rocks—nor even marble busts. One year I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall in mid-winter. It’s a masterpiece. But I didn’t read the sequel, and since then I have carefully culled my cold-season reading to exclude war, politics, family drama, and apocalypse. Admittedly, that narrows the options considerably. But with millions of books in print, one must narrow the options or drown in the literary flood.

I began Once Upon a River, on the recommendation of my author aunt, in late August. The first chapters unsettled me. Not because the content was disturbing. But because the prose was too transporting, the river too alluring, and, above all, the characters too captivating.

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The Lowenskold Ring, by Selma Lagerlof*

Several years ago our family enjoyed the beautifully animated series “Ronja the Robber’s Daughter.” Upon investigating its sources I discovered it was based on a book by the same name written by Astrid Lindgren, Swedish author of Pippi Longstockings. I had read one or two of the Pippi books as a child and found them a bit disorienting. Having read mostly straight fantasy or realistic fiction, I didn’t know how to receive the intrepid Pippi with her impossible personal history. Continue reading

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