My Name is Asher Lev: Art for truth’s sake

As the title suggests, My Name is Asher Lev is related by Asher Lev, born in Brooklyn in 1943 to parents whose marriage united two prominent Hasidic families.

front dust-jacket of My Name is Asher Lev shows the artist at work.
What is Asher Lev thinking as he eyes a blank canvas?

Asher is a very sensitive child, but he cannot communicate his feelings except through art. His earliest playmates “are Eberhard and Crayola.”

Asher’s mother, an emotionally fragile woman, likes him to draw pretty birds and flowers.

Asher’s father, principled and highly disciplined, thinks art is at best a waste of time; at worst, it’s a violation of the Law.

Mr. Lev travels as a missionary/community organizer, setting up schools in Jewish communities in communist countries.

When Asher enters yeshiva, his mother enters college to study Russian so she can work with her husband in stead of waiting for him to return.

The Rebbe, a faceless figure at the periphery of Asher’s life, arranges for him to study art with the world’s most prominent Jewish artist.

Asher grows distant from his family even as he grows mature enough to understand why they view life as they do.

Chaim Potok’s characters are complicated, sometimes puzzling to themselves as well as to those around them.

In Asher Lev, as in The Chosen and The Promise, Potok writes straightforward prose that mutes profound meaning: I burst into tears after reading the novel’s last line.

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
Alfred A. Knopf, © 1972, 373 p.
1972 bestseller #9. My grade: A

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Two from Galilee: A Love Story

All-text cover of Two From Galilee touts Marjorie Holmes' book "I've Got to Talk to Somebody, God"
Cover art wasn’t what drew readers to “Two from Galilee.”

In Two from Galilee, novelist Marjorie Holmes pieces together a plausible but saccharine story to cover what is known from the gospel records about Mary and Joseph, the parents of the Christ Child.

Holmes fills in the pages thanks to a good imagination supported by research into Jewish customs of the time.

Mary is the prettiest, most sought-after girl in town. Her parents are poor, but they expect Mary to marry above her station. Joseph wouldn’t be their choice: His family isn’t prosperous enough for their Mary.

Joseph is a handsome, hardworking young man, some half dozen years her senior. In love with Mary since they were children, he’s been waiting for her to grow up.

Joseph’s father, a wood worker, is slipshod about completing work on time if the job doesn’t interest him; as a result, his family is even poorer than Mary’s.

Mary can twist her father around her little finger—and does—to get her parents to accept Joseph as her bridegroom.

When she’s later found to be pregnant, she goes off to spend time with her relative Elizabeth, who has conceived her first born late in life.

Reading Two From Galilee won’t do anyone any harm, but its not likely to do anyone much good either.

Two from Galilee: A Love Story by Marjorie Holmes
Revell [1972] 223 p.
1972 bestseller #8. My grade: B-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Promise: Cultural clash on personal level

In The Chosen, Chaim Potok explored how two brilliant teenage boys struggled to find a way to reconcile their orthodox Jewish faith with their academic interests.

NYC sidewalk scene on cover of The Promise
Cover for Potok’s 1969 bestseller about two young Orthodox Jewish scholars.

The Promise again brings Reuven Malther and Danny Saunders, now both graduate students, together around a problem to which they respond differently.

Reuven meets a famous Jewish scholar who, though unable to believe in the Jew’s God or their theology, believes in Judiasm’s ethics and culture.

Prof. Gordon’s son has mental problems.

Through Reuven, the Gordons learn of Danny, who is doing brilliant work in psychotherapy. They agree to letting Danny isolate Michael until he opens up to Danny.

The very idea appalls Reuven.

He has his own problems.

The man who will determine whether he passes the smicha exam and becomes a rabbi is an ultra-Orthodox Jew who has violently attacked Reuven’s father for heretical views.

Potok weaves these and many more threads together into a exploration of friendship, father-son relationships, faith and orthodoxy, and the potentially lethal consequences of the zeal of the persecuted becoming a club by which they can persecute others.

The Promise is as good on second—or seventh—reading as on the first.

The Promise by Chaim Potok
Alfred A. Knopf, 1969. 368 pp. 1969 bestseller #8. My grade A.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

Christy: Facts get in the way of fiction

After hearing the founder of the American Inland Mission tell about needs of impoverished people within a day’s train ride of her Asheville, N.C., home, against her parents’ wishes, Christy Huddleston goes off to teach in a one-room school in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains.

section of map of Cutter Gap, TN, 1912
Small section of map on inside cover of Christy.

From the moment she steps off the train in a snow storm and finds no one to meet her, Christy’s romantic ideas of Christian service begin crumble.


Christy by Catherine Marshall
McGraw-Hill, 1967 496 pp. 1967 bestseller #5. My grade: B.

Christy has over 60 students of all ages in a single room.

There are no books.

Students walk to school barefoot year round, heedless of mud and snow.

The smell of unbathed bodies is overpowering.

Cutters Gap has some assets. Handsome preacher David Grantland is one of them.

Another is Alice Henderson, a quiet and sensible Quaker woman who wants the highlanders to know that God loves them.

Prickly, anti-religious Dr. Neil McNeil is a third.

Catherine Marshall based her novel on her parents’ experience in Appalachia in 1912-13, telling the story through her mother’s perspective. That perspective seriously weakens the story: Marshall is too close to her real life characters to make their fictional counterparts feel real.

Like a sermon in a movie theater, the story just feels out of place.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

“The Chosen” examines friendship, faith, fatherhood

collage of photos of Hasidic Jews, a baseball glove, broken glasses.
The Chosen begins with Hasidic Jews, baseball, and broken glasses.

Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen opens with a baseball game between two Jewish parochial schools.

The Hasidic school’s best player is Danny Saunders. Reuven Malter leads the orthodox school’s team, which the Hasidim consider as bad as Christians.


The Chosen by Chaim Potok
© 1967. Book Club Edition, 284 pp. 1967 bestseller #3. My grade: A.

Danny slams back one of Reuven’s pitches, sending shards of his glasses into his eye.

Later Danny comes to the hospital to apologize.

Reuven is smart, Danny, with his photographic memory, is brilliant. A friendship springs up between the boys who have no intellectual peers in their schools.

Through the boys’ friendship, Potok takes readers deep into the orthodox scene.

Reuven is very close to his scholarly father. He finds Rabbi Saunders’s refusal to speak to Danny on any topic other than the Talmud appalling.

Danny is hurt by the silent treatment, but loves and respects his father.

As the boys begin college, the question arises: What will happen if they want different careers than their fathers have chosen for them?

In Potok’s deceptively straightforward narrative, it’s easy to miss details that reveal motives deeply rooted in the two faith communities. Some readers will need to read the novel twice to grasp the faith context.

Others may read The Chosen twice because it’s worth reading more than once.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

A Good Woman skewers Christian humbug

original "Good Woman" cover with author's dedicationEmma Downes is a good woman.

Deserted by her husband, she started a business, supported herself, raised their son, now a missionary in Africa, and became a force to be reckoned with in her church.


A Good Woman by Louis Bromfield
Frederick A. Stokes, 1927. 432 pp. 1927 bestseller #10. My grade: A.

When natives attack Phillip’s African mission, Phillip escapes, dragging his virgin wife back to the states with him.

Missionaries board steam locomotive in Congo about 1900.
Phillip and Naomi left Africa after their mission was attacked.

Naomi would have preferred martyrdom, but Phillip has lost faith in his mother’s God and in his missionary calling.

Back home, Phillip takes a laborer’s job in the mills while his mother tries to put a good face on things — tough work, especially when her husband shows up after a 26 year absence.

Louis Bromfield builds his complex plot from the story’s setting and the personalities of his characters.

Bromfield draws Emma with deft strokes. She has guts, stamina, business acumen, determination, but she’s also manipulative, controlling, and self-deluded.

Emma’s religion is “ a practical, businesslike instrument of success,” her God conveniently pocket-sized, but Emma doesn’t know that.

Some of the incidents are shocking, but not unbelievable. The superficial way Bromfield relates horrific events powerfully suggests they are too awful to be spoken of.

Emma hasn’t a clue what Christianity is all about. Her cluelessness makes this book important — and vastly entertaining—90 years after its initial publication.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

In the Wilderness character tells

dark landscape of forbidding rocky hills
The wilderness is a frightening place.

In the Wilderness is an antidote to salacious later twentieth century bestsellers.

But Robert Hichens’ novel is strong stuff that many readers may find hard to swallow.


In the Wilderness by Robert Hichens
1917 bestseller #7. Project Gutenberg EBook #4603] My grade: A-

Dion Leith is passionately in love with Rosamund Everard, who finds him a nice, clean-living young man. Though trained as a singer, Rosamund feels her vocation is in a religious order, not marriage.

A sermon convinces her to accept Dion’s proposal. They marry, have a son.

Rosamund’s love is all for their son. She scarcely notices when the woman in a notorious divorce case pays attention to Dion.

When the Boer War breaks out, Dion volunteers. In his absence, Rosamund moves to an English cathedral village where her music and religious interests are welcome.

When he returns from South Africa, Dion accidentally shoots his son while the two are shooting together at Rosamund’s suggestion.

Rosamund screams, “Murderer,” and locks the cottage door against Dion.

Repudiating the values that locked the door on him, Dion leaves England for non-Western, non-Christian places, for drugs, debauchery, and the Other Woman.

Hichens doesn’t deliver a tidy, happily-ever-after ending.

It’s more of a “we’re going to grow up together” ending, a glimmer of hope that two very dissimilar people can create more happiness than unhappiness for each other.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni