Taking in the big picture with ‘The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem’

  • The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi (Thomas Dunne Books, translation 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: A window into the difficult life in Jerusalem primarily between the end of WWII and the beginnings of the State of Israel.  Yishai-Levi weaves together stories of four generations of a family descended from the exiles of the Spanish Inquisition.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: Jerusalem
  • Time: 20th century
  • This book, a bestseller in Israel, is a cross between a love letter to the seven generations of Jerusalemites in her family before her and a revelation of genuine cultural elements that created the boundaries in which her characters lived. Ideal for book group discussion.

Sometimes the appeal of a book goes beyond the story.  Sarit Yishai-Levi’s novel is rare in time, setting and community.  For those Israelis descended from Spanish Jews who migrated to Jerusalem in the early 19th century or earlier (often via Greece), the language and culture of the Ermosa family and their neighbors ring true.

In the Spaniol community, it is vital that marriage partners come from within the community. Many of the marriages are arranged, formally or less so. For several generations, it has been the curse of the Ermosa men that they fall in love with unsuitable women. Reined in by their parents, they marry more “suitable” partners and live with a longing for what they have lost. This disaffection is similarly passed down from generation to generation.

The pivotal character in The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is Luna, the eldest and most beautiful of the three Ermosa daughters. Luna is her father’s favorite but a thorn in her mother’s side. She aspires to a fashion magazine lifestyle, separating herself as much as possible from the expected path.

The family’s life is circumscribed by the neighborhood and the family business. The expectation is that daughters will receive a basic education, get married and settle near family, working in the store only if truly needed. Everyone lives in close quarters with none of the conveniences one might imagine of a merchant family in the 1940’s. Their world begins to change dramatically as local boys return from serving with the British in WWII. These young men are looking to establish themselves and to choose their partners. Some become a part of the growing cells working to undermine the British Army enforcing the Mandate. These are some of the external forces compelling change in Luna’s generation.

Most Israeli novels seen in the US marketplace have been written by men. These men are usually the sons or grandsons of Eastern European immigrants that arrived either in the pioneer days or came as a consequence of the Holocaust. Less frequent are writings by the descendants of Jews of the Middle East, North Africa or the Iberian peninsula. The strength of The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is the window it provides into the lives of the deeply rooted community where Ladino, not Yiddish, is the language of the home, and the cultural orientation is to the Middle East, not Europe.  The success Yishai-Levi has received with this novel is as much a testament to the love she shows for her Sephardic roots as it is for the story she has told.


A delicate balance in historical fiction

  • Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly (Ballantine Books, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Ravensbrück and the medical experimentation there are among the lesser known atrocities of WWII. Kelly’s book tells of the female doctor charged with doing these experiments and an American socialite who supported the Free French and brought the “rabbits” of Ravensbrück to the US in 1958.
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Locale: New York, Paris, Poland, Germany
  • Time: 1939 – 59
  • Read this for a skilled portrayal of the horrific and little-told events of Ravensbrück during WWII.

Caroline Ferriday was an exotic creature in New York on the brink of WWII. A socialite and former actress, she was a true francophile, volunteering her efforts to aid French citizens seeking entry to the US and orphaned children sheltered in French convents. In Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly aptly captures her vivacity and generosity of spirit, as well as the differences between her and many of the other upper-class young women in New York at that time.

The selflessness of Ferriday is contrasted in the other real women portrayed in Lilac Girls. The Ravensbrück labor camp was a model facility for the Nazis. Primarily populated by Polish political prisoners, it quickly became a showpiece for the Red Cross and the laboratory for horrific experimentation into the effects of untreated wounds and infections. Herta Oberheuser was completing her medical training as the war broke out and was the only woman doctor assigned to the medical staff at Ravensbrück. Initially assigned to minor ailments, she wanted to use her surgical training. Already set apart from the male doctors, she was the perfect choice for a clandestine project to infect and maim healthy young women to simulate battlefield infections and wounds. Over 70 young Polish women became test “rabbits”, intentionally untreated and reinfected to see the course these injuries and illness would take.

Herta Oberheuser was joined in her mistreatment of prisoners by a sadistic matron-like figure and an assistant out to get her. Wherever possible, Kelly has used actual names and information, made possible by the extenisve recorkeeping of the Nazi regime. After the war, Dr. Oberhauser was one of few women brought before the Nuremberg tribunal. Found guilty, she excaped execution and was imprisoned, only to be released after about 5 years.

Although the names of many of the “rabbits” are known, Kelly chose to create fictional women and in doing so provides rich backstories and intricate relationships among the sisters she has highlighted. The complex mix between real and fictional characters begs the reader to search out more about the people and Ravensbrück.

There is a vast continuum of titles that fall under the historical fiction genre. Historical figures make cameo appearances in fictional stories, and well-reasearched narratives have augmented dialogue to move actual events forward. In telling the stories of Ravensbrück and of the hardships of the Free French, Martha Hall Kelly has broadened the understanding of those beyond the Jews who were subjugated and often killed by the Nazis. If fault lies in the telling of the story, it is the conflation of Caroline Ferriday’s deeds with a love story involving her with a fictional French actor. This thread is a major element in the novel though it does not seem to have any historical basis. It does enrich the reader’s connection to Caroline and provides a view into what did occur in France during and immediately after the war. I would have preferred to see Caroline’s strength shown on her own.

Many readers I know have no interest in reading any more books, fiction or nonfiction, on the Holocaust. Though the events portrayed are horrific, there is benefit to reading the lesser-known stories. Martha Hall Kelly has done a great service by bringing to light the tragedy of Ravensbrück. And Caroline Ferriday should not be relegated only to archives.


Afghani Women Showing Their Strength

  • unknown-7The Pearl that Broke its Shell by Nadia Hashimi (Harper Collins, 2014)
  • In 40 words or less: Two young Afghani women, separated by four generations,  struggle to find their rightful places in their families and society.
  • Genre: Historical fiction
  • Locale: Afghanistan
  • Time: Early 20th and early 21st centuries
  • Read this to better understand the historical issues for women in Afghanistan, regardless of who is in power.

“I was a little girl and then I wasn’t. I was a bacha posh and then I wasn’t. I was a daughter and then I wasn’t. I was a mother and then I wasn’t.” Rahima at 15

At every turn, the women of The Pearl that Broke its Shell consider their naseeb or destiny. Nadia Hashimi novel reminds the reader how difficult it is for someone to break out of a preselected gender role where power and control are asserted physically and an ingrained belief in fate can quash any measure of independence.

Nadia Hashimi’s life experience is about as far from that of her character’s as one could get. Born in the U.S., she wrote this, her first novel, while a pediatric emergency physician in Washington, DC. Hashimi tells the tortured story of life in Afghanistan through the voices of Shekiba, a young girl orphaned in the early 20th century, and Rahima, her great-great-granddaughter born about a century later.

The world of Afghan women is dictated by strict societal norms. Arranged marriage at a very young age to someone chosen by male elders; bearing and raising children (preferably male); cooking and maintaining the collective home along with sisters-in-law and, possibly, other wives; bowing to the will of her husband, mother-in-law, and any senior wives. The wives are dependent upon one another for assistance and companionship, sharing family stories among themselves and with their girl children. And they are their sole source of knowledge about marriage, childbearing, and childcare since they often marry at thirteen or even earlier.

Shekiba was the only daughter of the outcast son in a large family that lived off the land. Maimed after a cooking accident, her father protected and educated her. After all of her immediate family succumbs to cholera, she is grudgingly taken in by her uncles, and grandmother and their families, becoming the house servant. She is tall and strong, so when the opportunity arises to better the family position, she is given to the ruler as a guard for his large harem. When it’s discovered that a man has entered the harem, her life changes yet again. All seemingly well before the age of twenty. And her life was just beginning.

Rahima is the third of five daughters, hearing the family stories from her unmarried great-aunt. Her father is often gone, a warring clansman for the ruler of the local area. Much of his pay is in opium, making life for his family even more difficult. Too often families prohibit girls from attending school or leaving their homes out of concern for interaction with local boys. Some families with only girls engage in a “wink-wink” subterfuge, dressing a girl as a boy to enable her/him to be educated, to take care of tasks such as going to the market, and possibly doing odd jobs to augment the family’s earnings. Rahima becomes one of such girls, a bacha posh, the existence of such a status indicating its acceptance. But before she even reaches puberty, she and her two older sisters are given in marriage to the ruler and his brothers to enrich her father’s family.

In The Pearl that Broke its Shell, juxtaposing the lives of individuals a century apart reminds the reader that despite the strides taken to improve the lot of women in Afghanistan, the tribal culture remains repressive and often dangerous. By creating brave and vivid female characters, Hashimi raised the awareness of the plight of many Afghani women in a way that news articles rarely do. This was a wonderful discussion book for a group I led earlier this week.

When a novel hangs on a luminary striking a sour note

  • Unknown-4And After the Fire by Lauren Belfer (HarperCollins, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: A secret J.S. Bach manuscript, hidden from inception due to inflammatory lyrics, passes from generation to generation, finally landing in a German home at WWII’s end. Grabbed then hidden by a Jewish GI, its uncovering after his death raises many questions.
  • Genre: Fiction with strong historical elements
  • Locale: Prussia, Germany, USA
  • Time: 1776 – 2010
  • Read this for a generation-crossing novel, interweaving music, faith and family secrets.

First, a caveat. If you are a classical music purist, J.S. Bach fan or musicologist, the literary device Belfer employs throughout the book may drive you crazy.

Susanna Kessler has had a very bad year. After the collapse of her marriage, she takes solace in her work for a family foundation and her new apartment on the grounds of a church. Her beloved Uncle Henry dies, leaving her to settle his estate. When doing so, she comes upon a folder with cursory notes, containing what appears to be a manuscript of a work by Johann Sebastian Bach, dated 1783. The lyrics accompanying the music are virulently anti-Semitic.

Belfer then takes the reader back to 1776 and the family of Daniel Itzig, important banker and advisor to the King of Prussia. Itzig’s family holds a unique position in Berlin society, particularly for Jews. Martin Luther’s beliefs are taking hold, creating new levels of acrimony towards Jews.

Sara Itzig was an accomplished pianist, under the tutelage of one of J.S. Bach’s sons. Upon her marriage, her teacher gives her his prized possession, an unpublished manuscript by his father. Grateful for the gift but appalled by the lyrics, she and her husband vow to keep it hidden. Sara continues her interest in music and culture, performing on piano and hosting salons. Never having children, she bestows her attention on her nieces and nephews.

To her chagrin, Sara’s sister and brother-in-law decide to convert to Christianity to better their position. One of Sara’s nieces marries the son of Moses Mendelssohn, the philosopher, and is the mother of Felix Mendelsohn, the composer. The manuscript is carefully hidden and then passed along for safe keeping within the family. The generations of the Itzig family, their connections and interests, seem to be consistent with history.

When Susanna discovers the manuscript, she realizes the importance of authentication and the publicity surrounding, and potential adverse reaction to,  its content. Susanna seeks out Dan, a history of music scholar at a Lutheran college, who is suffering a personal crisis. Intrigued by the possibility, he brings in a colleague from a private library to assist in the authentication. Both vie for Susanna’s attention, eventually protecting her from an intellectually predatory scholar.

In authenticating the work, Susanna travels to Germany to meet Dan at a conference. There she is confronted with lingering anti-Semitism. At Dan’s conference, a musicologist/theologian is arrested for war crimes. The threads of anti-Semitism are not left to the document alone.

Belfer pulls her story together like a complex multi-colored knitting project. Throughout, she adds complicating elements for each character’s story that are unnecessary to moving the plot forward.  A common thread among many of the characters is a crisis or betrayal of faith.

Despite Belfer’s periodic tangents, this is an engaging novel, more for the cultural history of Prussia and Germany than the specifics of J.S. Bach or his purported composition. When an author explicitly creates a fictitious device in an accurate historical context, it is important that the reader is able to suspend belief. For those who can do so, ‘And After the Fire’ is a fascinating story with much material for discussion.

Defining historical fiction and lists for your to-be-read pile


Historical fiction is one of the most popular genres. According to the National Council of Teachers of English, it is defined as:

In historical fiction, setting is the most important literary element. Because the author is writing about a particular time in history, the information about the time period must be accurate, authentic, or both. To create accurate and authentic settings in their books, authors must research the time period thoroughly.

The explosion of digitized primary source information available on the internet and the myriad of opportunities to connect researchers, both scholarly and avocational, has made it possible for authors to research in ways never before possible. These changes have enriched the backdrops to include accurate information on foods and drink, on how homes were heated (or not), material from merchant ledgers, and personal journals and letters. Concomitant is the tendency of readers to Google information they may find suspect. Some authors routinely receive emails questioning the veracity of historical events included in their fictional stories.


Just over two weeks ago, I spent a morning discussing modern historical fiction with an audience of 20 plus adults on Hilton Head Island, SC. It was a lively conversation and everyone had their favorite to share. Here is the list I handed out that day.  In preparation, I reached out to my Facebook friends to find their favorite historical fiction titles. After collecting them and filling in additional information, here is the crowdsourced list.

As I was pouring through this huge potential source of titles, what did I specifically exclude? The easiest are books that really are narrative nonfiction. The author has carefully researched many primary and secondary sources,  putting together a narration of real events. those I was asked to include were often about less known people or historical events. Also omitted were fictions about biblical or religious figures whose stories cannot be positioned in a specific  time period with surrounding outside historical elements. Several people asked to have Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent included but it can’t be specified.


What do I look for in a novel to move it to the historical fiction category? For me,  it must be more than a broad brush setting. Jane Austen’s novels are classics, providing a contemporaneous view of domestic life.  She adds little information about the historical events of her time or details about the economic structures. What I would include is 1930s era book if there is a party line in an apartment building. I would like to see a character try to use it and be rebuffed so that a reader could understand what it really means in the context of daily life.  Misplacing major historical events and inserting technological advances before their time moves a title into basic fiction or fantasy on my list depending on the situation.


In recent fiction, there have been a number of authors who have purposefully set their stories prior to the mid-1990s. That sets the story in the time before cell phones became ubiquitous and allows the author the opportunity for characters to be out of touch with others and ill-informed about breaking news. Technology can be an asset or detriment to the telling of a story.

Wherever possible I include information about the historical context and the author’s research in reviews as I write them.  If I miss the mark I hope you will call me on it. The reviews are a resource and should be accurate. If the lists of titles aren’t enough to keep you going, please look through blog archives (on the rose colored bar) or on the Books page where all past reviews are listed.