Today is Purim, and I get to spend the whole day with the Changeling. One of the laws of Purim is hearing the story of Esther, and, while my daughter isn’t precisely obligated in the laws yet (toddlers tend not to be held accountable for, for example, paying taxes, and Jewish law works the same way), I still thought we’d read one of my favourite versions of the Purim story. I’m awfully sorry to be giving you an AbeBooks link again, but this book is twenty years old (jeepers, and I bought my copy when it was just released! I feel old…), so it’s not exactly widely available, although it should be: Esther’s Story, by Diane Wolkstein, illustrated by Juan Wijngaard.
Do you remember how I’ve said over and over again of nonfiction books that I love the ones (such as A Bird Is a Bird and Feathers) which take the reader seriously? I feel the same way about this book. I’ll point out a few aspects to reinforce that right up front: a) It draws heavily and clearly on the written textual tradition; b) In fact, the whole premise for Esther writing her own story is drawn right from the end of the megillah, the original text of Esther (I’ll come back to that); c) the full-page gouache illustrations are meticulously detailed and drawn from the Persian material culture the book evokes. Everything about it, in other words, is rooted in the historical and textual background of the story. And it’s for children. (OK, granted, it was too old for my daughter, but she still enjoyed it– try it on kindergarten kids and up, I guess? But remember this post: Ages and Why I don’t mention them often.)
Let’s go back to that bit of text I mentioned from the megillah itself:
Then Queen Esther daughter of Abihail wrote a second letter of Purim for the pupose of confirming with full authority the aforementioned one of Mordecai the Jew. […] These days of Purim shall be observed at their proper time, as Mordecai the Jew– and now Queen Esther– has obligated them to do, and just as they have assumed for themselves and their descendants the obligation of the fasts with their lamentations. And Esther’s ordinance validating these observances of Purim was recorded in a scroll. (Jewish Study Bible, Esther 9:30, 31-32.)
Diane Wolkstein uses this mention of Esther sending out the letter to motivate her entire story: Mordecai first encourages Esther to write, giving her a diary which she uses to record the early events of the story (yes, a little anachronistic, perhaps). And, at the end of the whole dramatic story, we see the older Esther recording the final events in her letter to the Jews, and asking them to observe the fast which bears her name, Ta’anit Esther, the Fast of Esther, which immediately precedes the holiday of Purim. That’s all pretty scholastic, perhaps, and it’s a premise which could be used for a novel as well as for a children’s book (if you were looking for the premise for a good novel: you’re welcome!), but it works remarkably well here.
Let me take a moment here to acknowledge a few things: yes, there are absolutely aspects of the story which are changed. The book describes women being brought to the palace so the king can choose a wife, for example. It doesn’t give Harem 101 for schoolchildren. It doesn’t talk about the young women being brought to the king and the evening and away in the morning. It doesn’t talk about that sketchy part at the end of the book where “Haman was lying prostrate on the couch on which Esther reclined. ‘Does he mean,’ cried the king, ‘to ravish the queen in my own palace?'” (Esther 7:8). (It does show Haman tripping and falling in his terror, but not the possibly-probably-implied assault.) There is a lot of fairly explicit sexuality in this story, and a lot of it exists in a grey-to-bad place, especially coming from our modern perspective. This is heavily toned down for this book, but not so totally cut out that it’s unrecognizable, and I think Diane Wolkstein does it extremely well. Kids should be able to read this, grow up, read the original text and say, “Oh, I get it!”
So, what does she do to achieve this balancing act between good storytelling for a child audience and what we might call an evocation of historical authenticity? First of all, there’s the straightforward telling of a dramatic story in Esther’s own voice. That does a lot, right there. Most events come straight from the megillah, some are partly filled out from other sources, but few are invented. Personality, reactions? Those come from the author, but are rooted in how she sees the text. Thus, we see Esther first as a young, intelligent girl, being raised by her intelligent uncle who sees the direction events are taking. When he sees Vashti banished, he changes Esther’s name from Hadassah to Esther and asks her to hide her Jewish identity; she wonders, but obeys. As she gets older, she’s moved to the palace, and we see more and more of her own thoughts and her own growing courage.
I love that amplification: the original story is, as the Bible frequently is, devoid of those strokes of description which give you a sense for what people are feeling. That’s what modern retellings can provide: good ones reach into the events and say, “how was this working?” In this case, it went from happy-go-lucky childhood to slight bewilderment and tension at the palace, to an initial exhilaration at her becoming queen, and onto sudden seriousness when faced with a truly terrible situation. No teenager, and if you care to do the math in the book Esther is probably around 16 or 17, should be tasked with facing sudden painful death on the one hand, or the extinction of her people (and, presumably, eventually herself) on the other. It’s kind of a nasty place to be, she writes employing litotes, and, by focusing in on Esther’s reactions and feelings, Diane Wolkstein is able to make it believable and allow us to relive the story rather than wonder, “Poor lamb, how on earth did she feel about that?” Obviously this is particularly good for children, who otherwise can’t quite amplify lines such as, “If I perish, I perish,” for themselves, but who are all too often faced with stories and plays which reduce it to a farce or some other form of pablum. (Yes, I speak feelingly– dear God, I’ve seen some awful puppet shows of the Esther story!)
Naturally, a book like this wouldn’t work without good illustrations, and in this case Juan Wijngaard does phenomenal work. Some of these pictures are good enough to frame, honestly. His paintings, done in gouache, focus particularly on the material world of Persia, which ably draws out the material wealth which is the focus of the text, thereby juxtaposing the ease of life with life itself, so tenuous and ephemeral in the hands of unscrupulously powerful men. If I had to say one word which jumps out of those illustrations, it’s “textiles.” You feel that you could reach in and stroke the cloth, feel the stiffness of rich embroidery, the supple silks, the soft carpets. As Esther fasts, anticipating the death that awaits her as she enters the king’s chamber the next day, Juan Wijngaard shows her lying on her rich carpet, her soft bed rumpled beside her (presumably she’s passing a restless, sleepless night) fingers twined, face sweaty, reading a book propped up on a soft cushion. The sun rises, peeking through her carved shutter. The whole story is apparent in that one image: “I’m going to die, one way or another, tomorrow. And here I am, in my rich room… yet I’m going to die. I am queen… I’m going to die.” You couldn’t have a better artist for this book.
As I said, the Changeling’s really a bit young for this, but not all that young. I think next year she’ll be able to grasp it a little better, and the year after that, even better. I think it’s a wonderful book to grow up with– and I hope that I’ll be watching some parallel development as she watches Esther grow and develop from a young, intelligent girl to a strong, courageous woman.