Off the shelf | Historical fiction pulls off an artful feat: keeping it real

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At its best, historical fiction manages to illuminate both its characters’ inner lives and the environment in which those lives transpire. Here are some of this summer’s most interesting entries in the genre.

Kim van Alkemade’s debut novel, “Orphan #8,” follows New Yorker Rachel Rabinowitz, who has done her best to transcend the trauma of her early years. In 1919, 4-year-old Rachel and her older brother were sent to an orphanage following their mother’s death during a fight with their father in their Lower East Side apartment. In the orphanage Rachel became an involuntary subject in a series of scientific experiments testing the use of high doses of radiation as a means of medical treatment.

Several decades later, Rachel is now a nurse in a Jewish institution for the elderly, where she identifies one of the patients in her charge, Mildred Solomon, as the researcher who had conducted the experiments that left Rachel permanently hairless and prone to cancer.  Rachel embraces the opportunity to exact revenge or at least to extract an apology, but her conversations with the unremorseful Dr. Solomon, who is now dying a painful death from cancer that may well be the product of her own exposure to radiation, turn out to yield a more complex result.

The novel is made more interesting by van Alkemade’s choice to interlace chapters told from different angles — those set during the early 1950s are in Rachel’s voice, while those taking place decades earlier are related by an omniscient narrator.

The novel was sparked by the author’s desire to learn about her own grandfather’s experience as a resident of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York. Van Alkemade does a fine job of recreating life in this vast institution, which covered two Harlem blocks and housed more than a thousand children at a time.

Van Alkemade also contributes to the body of Jewish novels that focus on lesbian characters, as the development of Rachel’s sexual identity assumes a prominent dimension over the course of the book.

Alice Hoffman’s new novel, “The Marriage of Opposites,” features another Rachel as its protagonist: Rachel Pomie Petit Pizzarro, remembered as the mother of the highly influential painter Camille Pissarro. The setting is particularly striking — the Sephardic community of the island of St. Thomas, which was then a colony of Denmark, in the early 19th century.

Rachel feels suffocated by her close-knit community and regularly defies its expectations of women in her position, as when she pursues friendships with black women and strives to educate herself. Her rebellious streak reaches its peak when, after her husband in an arranged marriage dies, she becomes involved in a passionate relationship with her late husband’s nephew and chooses love over her community’s approval.

Things become more complex as the narrative extends over several decades, and the headstrong qualities that earn our sympathies as we witness her frustration as a daughter and wife become more problematic in her response to her son Camille’s independence. Reflecting later in life on her relationship with her own mother, she muses, “Everything I had done to her, my son now did to me.”

In addition to the concentration on intergenerational relationships, the historical dimension in the book is quite pronounced, with a satisfying exploration of conditions in both the New World and the Old, including the European art world that Camille Pissarro enters.

Transforming historical figures like Rachel Pizzarro into fictional characters can be risky business, and San Francisco attorney and author Joseph Matthews embraces the challenge in his well-researched new novel, “Everyone Has Their Reasons,” rendered in the voice of Herschel Grynszpan.

Grynszpan was the 17-year-old Jewish immigrant whose murder of a low-ranking diplomat, Ernst vom Rath, in the German Embassy in Paris in November 1938 was used by the Nazis as a pretext to unleash the wave of anti-Jewish violence that became known as Kristallnacht.

Matthews is understandably drawn to the drama in Grynszpan’s predicament. Born in Germany to a family of poor Polish Jewish émigrés, Herschel was sent alone to Paris at 15 to live with relatives. His circumstances quickly grew desperate: formally expelled in 1938, he continued to live in Paris illegally. And later that year, he learned that his parents and siblings were being deported from Germany, along with thousands of other Jews of Polish origin. The entire family was stateless and helpless, and the assassination was his cry of protest.

Composed entirely of letters written to his appointed attorney as he inhabits several prisons, the novel paints a vivid picture of conditions for the thousands of East European Jews living in Germany and France in the 1930s.

Among the notable elements are Grynszpan’s allusions to possible sexual involvement with vom Rath, which has been suggested elsewhere. It is impossible to know whether there is any truth to these assertions or whether it was simply an ingenious bargaining chip to buy time, with fear of embarrassing revelations preventing Germany from going forward with the show trial that Joseph Goebbels was planning for Grynszpan. Indeed, the irony is that, although we have little definitive knowledge of Grynszpan’s ultimate fate, he appears to have spent most of the war in prison before being killed, outliving most of Europe’s Jews.

“Orphan #8” by Kim van Alkemade (416 pages, William Morrow)

“The Marriage of Opposites” by Alice Hoffman (384 pages, Simon & Schuster)

“Everyone Has Their Reasons” by Joseph Matthews (448 pages, PM Press)

Howard Freedman
is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.


Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.