2013/11/30 by rmstrong1980
Writing historical fiction can be tricky. Because the book contains actual historical events, authors assume the risk that some readers will take every word written to be true. No matter how much research is done, an element of fiction can seep its way into a reader’s mind as fact (for example: pirates did not actually make prisoners walk the plank, nor did they bury treasure and mark their maps with an X). With regular historical fiction this has little lasting effect, when writing biblical historical fiction, the weightiness of the task should spur the author on to extensive research—not just on the biblical front to get the narrative, but also into the culture of the time period.
I received Return to Me by Lynn Austin from the publisher specifically for review. The story begins in the ancient city of Babylon. The Jewish people have been conquered and in exile for close to seventy years. When the Persians take over the city, King Cyrus allowed—even encouraged the Jews to return and rebuild God’s temple in Jerusalem. The book follows the lives of one of the families returning, Iddo, his wife Dinah, his grandson Zechariah, and “Zaki’s” friend Yael. Spanning more than twenty years, Return to Me takes us through the first few decades back in Jerusalem.
Return to Me is an enjoyable-enough story. It follows the biblical timeline well enough and gives good insight into the tensions and temptations that the returning Jews faced, especially in regard to their Samaritan neighbors. The characters are believable and likable. Each chapter is told from one of the four main characters’ points of view. It is sometimes difficult to remember who is who—the children both call their parents “Abba” and “Mama”—but it does not usually detract from the story.
My main issue with the book, though, is while the author did her scriptural research and consulted some commentaries, according to the acknowledgements at the end of the book, there seemed to be very little research done on Jewish culture of the time. All of the Jews in the story seem to be modern Jews going about modern lives.
The author has Zechariah going to yeshiva in Babylon. While there is no historical evidence of the Jewish religious schools in Babylon, it is not entirely out of the realm of possibility that the teachers and other elders may have set up some semblance of the religious school during that time in exile. However, there is not a yeshiva mentioned in history for at least 400 years after the exiles returned to Jerusalem. Still, that can be mostly overlooked. Unfortunately, that is not where the historical discrepancies stop.
Zechariah spends much of his time in the yeshiva studying for his bar mitzvah—the day when he would read the Torah in the house of assembly and officially become a man in the eyes of the community. He reads the Torah, and then they return to their communal family home to a very large banquet and party for friends and neighbors—which is how bar mitzvahs are celebrated in today’s culture. During their times of study, the men of the community also wear a kippah (yarmulke or a skull cap). These are both horribly period inappropriate—by nearly 1000 years, perhaps longer.
Instead of looking for husbands for daughters when they come of age in the Jewish culture (at age 12, or when puberty hits), teenage—and older—daughters are encouraged to wait until they are older to marry. For example, Yael comes of age during the migration from Babylon to Jerusalem, but her father waits more than ten years to marry her off. The mother of a 16-year-old girl holds off a marriage because she’s “much too young,” when, in fact, for the time and culture, she’s bordering on “old maid” status.
Austin may have simply been trying to equate what the modern reader knows about bar mitzvahs and current Jewish culture to her ancient characters. However, if that is the case, then it should have been stated at the end of the book in the acknowledgements, the author’s note, or a note from the editor. I was able to find out the above-mentioned three things were not period appropriate in less than five minutes on the Internet. As it stands, it gives the feel that the author may have decided that reading the Bible and commentaries on the text was the only research that needed to be done to write an accurate biblical historical fiction which, in my opinion, is lazy storytelling.
Austin, for reasons unmentioned, also decides to exclude Nehemiah and his rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem in her narrative. While it is not crucial to her story, and I understand why she might have chosen to leave it out for the purposes of space and word count, the security of Jerusalem—even after the wall was supposed to have been built—is mentioned many times, making me wonder why such a miracle was left out. Large spaces of time—years, even a decade at one point—are skipped over in the book, during which the wall could have been built and Nehemiah return to his job as cup bearer to King Artaxerxes. This, however, would not leave the city completely undefended as is implied in the last few chapters.
For avid readers of and researchers into biblical culture and the biblical narrative’s cultural history, I would recommend against this book. The errors—while not earth-shattering—are mentioned continually and will leave the reader with the feeling that the author did not do her due diligence in her research for the book. For those who are not distracted by historically-inaccurate historical fiction, the book is well-written and the story well-told.