Fuse #8

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Review of the Day: The Night of the Burning

If I were a writer of children’s books, which I am not, and I wanted to write my debut novel I’d start very slow. Maybe write something fluffy and fun to begin with and then slowly, over the years, ease my way into serious historical fiction. I certainly wouldn’t have the guts to plunge into a personal narrative and I CERTAINLY wouldn’t be able to bring a little known (little known to American children, that is) moment in history to the fore. That is probably why Linda Press Wulf is now slated to become a great author to watch while I spend my days reviewing. Guts? She’s got ‘em. And her debut novel, “The Night of the Burning”? Smart and honest. It has the wherewithal to show that even people who live through terrible disasters together can be willingly separated once that danger is past. So it would be worth our while to follow Ms. Wulf’s career.

The adults in the orphanage refer to Devorah as “the sad one” when they think she cannot hear, and sometimes when she can. She hasn’t smiled since she and her sister Nechama arrived in Pinsk, and little wonder. Both sisters have lived through a deadly pogrom in their small village as well as bearing witness to the death of their father, their mother, their uncle, and their aunt. As the elder of the two Devorah is still on the lookout for danger wherever the two go. Yet when a kind man by the name of Isaac Ochberg arrives to tell the children that he’s taking 200 Jewish orphans with him to South Africa, it is little Nechama who persuades her older sister to go. Once established Nechama is soon plucked up by a family that only wants one little girl. Devorah, for her part, ends with a kind couple who aren’t entirely certain how to care for this scarred, sometimes furious child. What Devorah must learn is to let go of the past but always remember where she came from. Once she is able to do that, she may even love her new family, in a way that still pays tribute to the past.

There are certain rules a person acquires over the years when determining whether or not a book is worth finishing. Here’s a new one I’ve just added: If the author can make you tear up by page 10, this is a book worth finishing. To be honest, I’m still shocked at how quickly Wulf is able to engage the reader. On page one you hardly know the characters and by ten you’re snuffling in your soup when Mr. Ochberg gently rocks Devorah and sings a lullaby as she cries for the first time since The Night. It's nothing short of amazing.

Plus the character of Devorah was imbued to her bones with life. This was the kind of kid who was easily disturbed by stories, to say nothing of the horrors she’d eventually endure. You get a glimpse of her strength early on when we see her reworking the story of Jael in her head. In the original tale, Jael killed an enemy by knocking a tent peg through his head. Devorah is mildly obsessed with the logistics of this. “How did she hold the tend peg and swing the mallet hard at the same time? What would have happened if she hadn’t got the peg in all the way?” Eventually Devorah reworks Jael’s situation over and over until she decides that the man could have been trapped by a large metal half circle hammered into the ground around his neck. When Devorah senses an unpleasant problem, she does her best to correct it. Actually, all the characters in this book are rendered beautifully. Kindly Mrs. Kagan, who adopts Devorah but doesn’t understand how to communicate with her at the start, is described by the girl thusly: “I couldn’t decide about Mrs. Kagan yet. She was big and solid, and she moved like the three girls at my school who sometimes linked arms and plowed through the crowds on the playground chanting: ‘We. Walk. Straight. So. You’d-Better-Get-Out-of-the-Way’.” This is perhaps the best description of a person in a children’s book I have ever read. The best part is that we all know people like that.

Wulf is also adept at taking a small still moment between two people so as to imbue it with greater meaning. In a graveyard in her village, young Devorah officially vows to always remember her people's stories. Says her Papa, “My heart is full of pride. But my head worries about you. Now that you have vowed, you must remember. But there are different ways of remembering, my child. Hard ways and easier ways. I hope you will find an easier way.” For those amongst you who are considering reading this book in a children’s book group, this is a good line to parse the meaning of. It’s such a pleasure to read a writer who knows how to slip small meaningful moments into ordinary situations. When Devorah hugs the other orphans because a once sick Mr. Ochberg is getting better, Wulf writes, “I can feel their hearts, I thought, I can feel each one’s heart.”

The authorial technique of flashing between the present and the past was a good move on Wulf’s part. Kids will appreciate the reassurance of knowing that Devorah and her sister both survive their village’s pogrom by seeing them safely ensconced in the orphanage at the beginning of the tale. By showing them moving to the safety of South Africa, the book is also able to pair a sad tale with a hopeful one, keeping the book from bogging down in misery right from the start. Too many children’s books crack the reader’s heart in half at the tale’s beginning and then expect that same readership to happily skip along to an unbelievable happy ending. And say what you will about “The Night of the Burning”, the ending we find on this story is wholly and utterly believable.

Ms. Wulf would be amiss in not mentioning the powerlessness of the indigenous black Africans, and she certainly brings them up once in a while. They do not become the focus of the book, though, so their story is sort of scuttled to the side. I felt conflicted about this choice. For example, almost at the end of the book Elizabeth, the servant of Mrs. Kagan, leaves for the weekend without saying goodbye to Devorah when her sister is visiting. Devorah wonders why Elizabeth didn’t say her farewells, but never really resolves the question. Are we to assume that Elizabeth knew the character of Devorah’s sister and responded accordingly? I wish more had been said on the topic. In a way, I hope that Ms. Wulf considers writing a sequel to “The Night of the Burning”, if only to resolve some of the issues she’s brought up with this book.

In any case, a strong book and a remarkable debut. Few if any American children are aware of the work of Isaac Ochberg, to say nothing of the politics of South Africa. “The Night of the Burning” closes another gap in their knowledge and offers a perspective I’ve not seen before. Linda Press Wulf has shown the world she has a particularly deft hand. Let’s hope she displays it again soon.

Notes On the Cover: I dunno. This is a hard one to figure out. Are kids going to pick this up? The Devorah I see here kind of resembles Karen Cushman's, "Rodzina", which I didn't envision when I read this story. I don't have any real problems with this image, but I don't find it the best pairing either. Acceptable.

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