Wednesday, December 22, 2010

REVIEW: Hush by Eishes Chayil

By Eishes Chayil
Published 09.14.2010
Walker Books for Young Readers
368 pages
*This book has been shortlisted for the 2010 William C. Morris Award

Synopsis

Inside the closed community of Borough Park, where most Chassidim live, the rules of life are very clear, determined by an ancient script written thousands of years before down to the last detail—and abuse has never been a part of it. But when thirteen-year-old Gittel learns of the abuse her best friend has suffered at the hands of her own family member, the adults in her community try to persuade Gittel, and themselves, that nothing happened. Forced to remain silent, Gittel begins to question everything she was raised to believe.
 
A richly detailed and nuanced book, one of both humor and depth, understanding and horror, this story explains a complex world that remains an echo of its past, and illuminates the conflict between yesterday's traditions and today's reality.

*Please note: the girls are nine, not thirteen.  I believe the synopsis is wrong.

REVIEW: Do you remember studying the Holocaust in grade school?  There was a famous saying that you probably learned:

“First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.”
—Martin Niemoeller

Niemoeller’s immortal and pointed statement on the dangers of political and moral apathy could easily be applied to the small, sequestered community that Gittel and her dearest friend, Devory, live in, located in Brooklyn, NYC.  This is a community of ulra-orthodox Jews, and reading Hush is like stepping into a world that you know exists, but the customs and beliefs that they practice are, on the whole, far more foreign than familiar.  This story essentially is about three things: a beautiful and enduring friendship between two little girls, a community who hurts its most innocent members in a misdirected and fatal attempt at protecting itself, and how ignorance and fear condemns victims, not the perpetrators.

Central to the story are Gittel (the narrator) and Devory.  They were born on the same day at the same hospital and have been best friends ever since.  Gittel is a wonderful narrator, and the best way I can describe her is that she’s a cross between Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird and Eloise from Eloise.  She is spunky, energetic, and makes observations that are profound in the eyes of a nine-year-old, but ironic and whimsical to the reader.  Devory is a bit wilder and often acts out.  There is a good reason why she does: Devory is being sexually molested by an older family member.  Devory does not have a word to explain what is happening to her.  She has nothing to call it.  Such things do not exist in their world, the world of the chosen people, all of whom are going to Heaven.  It’s only when Devory’s behavior deteriorates and Gittel witnesses the abuse that things come to a head.

The story is separated into two sections.  In the first section, the narrative flips back and forth between 1999- 2000, when the girls are nine, and 2008, when Gittel is preparing to graduate from high school and looking forward to becoming engaged.  Devory is no longer there.  Gittel communicates with her by letter throughout the book.  It’s the only way she can communicate with Devory.  You learn on the first page of the story that Devory is dead.

This is a multi-layered story with no easy answers and many victims.  The community is a well-oiled machine, and social reputation and placement are everything.  In the everyday status quo, there is a lot of love and security in the community, and you see this especially in the relationship between Gittel and her father.  The also pride themselves on taking care of their own and providing for the least of their community.  However, they are distinctly uncharitable toward those who do not act in a proper way, come from a family with a bad history, or who could in any way bring shame upon a family or the community at large.  Thus, when something shameful happens, it is hushed up rather than dealt with.  By default, Devory is condemned to death.  People knew something was wrong.  Not one person told the absolute truth, but they knew enough to help her if they wanted to admit what was going on.  The stakes are high – speaking out against your fellow Jew literally is a horrible sin, an absolute evil.  When someone does try to speak out about something, they bring shame upon themselves and their families.  At the least, the community will completely ostracize them; at worst, they may be physically attacked.  Gittel spends a good amount the book dealing with her guilt, growing to adulthood with her frozen-in-time best friend haunting her dreams and sharing her thoughts. 

It’s not all doom and gloom.  There truly is a sense of community here, and the friendship that Gittel and Devory have is enduring, charming and a beautiful thing that you will enjoy watching grow.  An extremely important person in the story is Kathy, a ‘gentile’ woman who lives in a rented apartment in Gittel’s home.  She is the keystone in this story, and if it were not for her, neither girl would have much exposure to the outside, nor would Gittel ever find a way out of her pain.  It’s also a fascinating look inside a community that one rarely gets a glance into, and the author is brave for shedding light on it and its darker issues.  ‘Eisher Chayil’ is a pen name, and you will learn in the book that it means ‘Woman of Valor’.  I’ve read some review where readers think this is pretentious.  I disagree – I think the author is stating what she thinks is ‘true’ valor, and this book is her attempt at living up to her own standards.  I don’t blame her for not signing her real name to it; in all likelihood, she probably still lives in this community, and she and her family likely would face expulsion from it if she was ever connected with this book.    

This is a well-written book full of the kind of humor that only happens when two worlds collide, and the childish observations that Gittel makes between her world and the modern, secular one will make you laugh.  It also has plenty of bittersweet moments, ironical observations and desperate emotions.  You will identify with the feeling of friendship, family and community, but will be engrossed and educated in the aspects of another culture.  If you like dystopian literature, this may actually be a book for you – even though it is set in ‘real life’, outside influences are carefully controlled, the customs are foreign, the marriages are arranged, and romantic love is a ridiculous notion that only outsiders believe in.  There are many Yiddish phrases throughout the book, so please be aware that there is a glossary at the end to help you out.  I advise reading it before you start the story, and this is most definitely a story worth reading.  It’s heartbreaking, poignant and promising, and reaffirms the belief that ignorance and apathy are the enemies of truth and justice.

10 comments:

  1. Linds, this is SUCH an incredible and insightful review. I can't believe I've never even heard of this title before! Just from the quotes and your thoughts, this sounds very powerful and emotional. I'm definitely adding it to my list now!

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  2. Wow, just reading the blurb you can tell this has to be written well to be a good read because of the things it deals with.
    Such a great review!!

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  3. Great review. Thanks for adding all those quotes. It helps get an insight into whether this is a book I want to read and I say yes it is. I also love that dedication. Sounds like a powerful read :)

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  4. @Melissa - thanks so much! I found out about this book by chance when I came acrosss a newspaper review for it while gathering news for the roundup - I immediatly requested it from the library. It is very powerful.

    @BfC - extremely well-written - the balance between childhood discovery and emerging reflection is perfect.

    @Nic - I never feel like I can completely convey the tone in my reviews, so that's why I include a variety of quotes. I feel like that, more than anything, tells people if this is a book that they will like - glad it helped!

    -Linds

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  5. Thanks for getting me excited about this book. First time here. Great blog! I'll be back for inspiration.

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  6. Wow Linds, what a beautiful review you wrote! This one sounds emotionally intense, but it's clearly one that will stand out and be memorable for some time to come. I'm glad there are moments of humor along with the darker moments, I love when a book has a nice balance like that. Definitely going to be looking into this one!

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  7. I'm not going to lie - this is a difficult book to read because of the subject matter - you know what's coming from the synopsis and the first page alone. I think it's so important to read books like this, though - they give a voice to those who need it most, and we need to hear tham.

    -Linds

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  8. This sounds like an incredible book. Definitely intense, but I think it seems like a beautiful if discomforting story. Sort of like reading The Lovely Bones, perhaps?

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  9. @Rebekah - thanks for coming! I hope you stop by often!

    @Logan - it is incredible and discomforting - it certainly leaves you feeling hopeful, and even a bit savage.

    -Linds

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  10. I just finished this one last night. It was incredible. I have been fascinated by Hassidic Jews ever since doing a report on them in college. It seems sad that the people are so isolated. They are positively sheltered in many ways, but it's sad that they are taught to believe that all the goy are evil and that they can't trust anyone outside of their group. It's an example of why segregation is so detrimental to society.
    I love how she portrayed Devory. Although I have no personal experience with sexual abuse, the way Devory reacted to it felt so real. And the development of Gittel's grief and anger at the repression of Devory's death was so interesting.
    A great book.

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