Bicycles, magic and new gods: three novels

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman


On a bicycle built for one

Annie Cohen Kopchovsky’s life was like that of many 20-something Jewish women in Boston during the late 19th century: an arranged marriage, a husband who spent most of his time at the synagogue or reading, and three young children. However, even her part-time job selling advertisements – which was considered unusual in her community – didn’t satisfy her desire for something more than the daily grind. What she did decide to do was highly unusual as Peter Zheutlin shows in his novel “Spin” (Pegasus Books): she left her husband and children, changed her name to Annie Londonberry and traveled around the world on a bicycle. Does the plot sound preposterous? Believe it or not, Annie was a real person and the book’s subtitle notes that the novel is “based on a (mostly) true story.”

When Annie learns that a bicycle company is offering a $10,000 prize to any woman who circles the globe on a bicycle, she applies, even though she has not discussed the possibility with her husband. When the company decides to sponsor her trip, she’s told to say she’s single (it was considered inexcusable for a woman to leave her children) and to pretend she’s not Jewish, which is why she needs a new name. Annie has no problem with either condition: in fact, she relishes the idea of leaving her current life behind. She never hides the fact that she’s not particularly maternal and believes her children will be fine in the care of her husband, brother and sister-in-law. Also, if Annie can win the prize money, her family’s financial situation will greatly improve.

The majority of the novel focuses on Annie’s travels around the world, but also discusses the restrictions placed on women’s lives at the time and the ways riding a bicycle offered them more freedom than was previously available. Annie is clever at promoting her global trip and figuring out how to win the $10,000 prize. What will not be as easy is returning to her family now that she has had a taste of freedom. When writing about the later part of her life, she acknowledges how her actions affected her children, positively and negatively. What is clear is that Annie was a woman ahead of her times. 

What makes “Spin” such fun to read is that its seemingly unrealistic plot is based on a reality. Some readers will be upset by the choices Annie made, but those same choices helped raise her family out of poverty. The author notes that he has to fill in some blanks because not everything is known about Annie’s travels, but he does a convincing job. (That may be because he previously published a nonfiction work detailing her journey.) However, the sheer chutzpah of a woman in the 1890s setting off on her own to travel the world with only her bicycle and a small trunk made “Spin” a wonderful book. 

Magic or religion

Évike has no magic. That makes her dispensable in Ava Reid’s fantasy “The Wolf and the Woodsman” (Harper Voyager) when the Woodsmen sent by the king arrive in her village searching for a seeker (someone who can tell the future). Évike is no seeker, but her pagan village is glad to be rid of her: she has no magic and her bloodline is considered impure since her father was a Yehuli, a tax collector who came to the village from the king’s court in the capital. The villagers are despised and barely considered human by those living in the capital who practice a different religion. Yet, Évike sees the Woodsmen perform what seems to be the same magic as the villagers. However, the Woodsmen declare what they do is different: their skills come from their one God, the God whose worship they would impose on everyone in the land.

However, Évike comes to see one Woodsman as different from the rest: although Bárány is the king’s true heir, his mother was a foreigner from a now despised nation and people distrust him. The two must fight again Bárány’s half-brother, Nándor, who seeks the throne for himself and plans to rid the nation of its remaining pagans and the Yehuli. Évike wants to protect both sides of her heritage, even the one that rejected her, and learn more about her father. The novel shows Évike and Bárány’s struggles against magical creatures and the war between those of different religions; these scenes are vividly described and often gruesome. 

Readers might be wondering why this novel is being reviewed in a Jewish newspaper. The PR material noted that it was “inspired by Hungarian history and Jewish mythology.” The Jewish aspect didn’t appear until more than 100 pages into the work, when it becomes clear that the Yehuli are Jewish (even though that term is never used): among the signs are that they read Hebrew, tell the story of the book of Esther and celebrate Jewish holidays. While a minor part of the work, the history the author relates is similar to that of real European history: the Yehuli are threatened with death and exile because they are different. Those looking for a purely Jewish fantasy won’t find it here; however, its treatment of the differences between religion and magic makes this an excellent choice for book clubs that enjoy reading fantasy.

Searching for a new god

In a time when each tribe or city had its own god, how do you know which god to worship? Would you be punished for searching for a different one or would that new divine being protect you? In ancient times before Judaism was practiced, a Bedouin Arab, Tiras, looks for a new religion after the bull-god his tribe worships demands the life of his daughter. In “A House in the Land of Shinar” by Bernadette Miller (Archway Publishing), Tiras travels to Sumer to learn of its gods in the hope of finding one who will not ask him to sacrifice his remaining children.

In Sumer, Tiras meets Mah Ummia, a scholar and physician, who saves Tiras’ life and invites him to stay at his house while recovering from an injury. Ummia enjoys teaching Tiras about city life, which is very different from that in the desert. This serves to distract Ummia from the struggle he is having with his daughter, who is refusing to marry the man of his choice. Complications ensue for both men, although Tiras does return safely to his tribe and works to convert them to the new god he’s discovered: one who is a mix of Sumerian gods and who, although he demands they worship no other god, also loves them and promises them a bright future.

In her introduction, Miller notes how her research shows that many of the tales in the Bible are variations on stories found in ancient Sumerian writings. Her novel attempts to portray the way those stories might have been adapted by a tribe living in the desert, a tribe that would later become the first Jews. Miller’s prose is plain, but her story is engaging, if only to learn how Tiras comes to believe in his new god. Unfortunately, some Christian theology is mixed into this religion, but that’s not the main focus of the tribe’s worship. Readers may not be completely convinced that this was how Judaism developed, but those interested in the culture clashes will find the ones between the Sumerians and Bedouins interesting, especially since each assumes their way of life is superior.