Off the Shelf: Art and families

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The Allegheny Mountains of Appalachia are not the easiest place to be Jewish. For example, Jean, one of the two narrators of “Take What You Need” by Idra Novey (Viking), recalls a classmate asking to see her horns. But Judaism generally takes a backseat in Novey’s novel: the themes of art – especially the desire to make art – and family are the main focus, particularly the relationship between Jean and her stepdaughter, Leah.

Leah, the second narrator, is prompted to review her relationship with Jean after being notified of her death. Traveling with her husband and son, Leah thinks back on the years that have passed since her father divorced Jean. Unfortunately, Leah’s father refused to let Leah visit Jean after she left the marriage and their relationship slowly deteriorated. But, now, Leah remembers the good times they had together: how she and Jean shared a love of gruesome fairy tales and the special place – a secluded creek – they visited together, appreciating the beauty of nature. The last time Leah and Jean met, though, something happened that caused a permanent rupture, an event Leah is still trying to understand. 

Jean’s narrative takes place in the last years of her life, after she had retired and finally has time to create the sculptures of which she’s dreamed for years. She calls them “Manglements,” large boxes and shapes created by soldering sheets of metal. Doing the work is not easy: the tools she uses are dangerous and her designs are limited by her ability to lift and handle the material. However, help comes in the form of a new family that moves in next door. Elliott, the son, is unable to find work due to having a police record and sits listlessly in his front yard. But he and Jean form a tentative and fragile friendship that has positive and negative effects on their lives. 

Although Jean never escaped their home town, Leah was eager to leave. After spending years in South America, she finally returned to the U.S. with her husband. But the West Virginia they travel through after Jean’s death makes clear its anti-immigrant stance: there are signs on homes and businesses that show her family may not be safe if they are forced to stop. In fact, it was a difference of opinion about those expressing these opinions – and the safety of being around someone threatening to use his guns against the minorities he dislikes – that caused the final split between Leah and Jean. What is extremely sad is how their different interpretations of the event prevented them from getting to know each other again as adults.

While the novel focuses on art and family, politics are just below the surface. Racist, anti-Obama, pro-Trump supporters in Jean’s town make clear their dislike of Mexicans and Latinos, and could be a threat to Leah’s family. However, the work more explicitly asks a different and interesting question: is it the making of art that matters or its reception? Readers are left to decide. The novel’s bittersweet ending also shows how complicated family relationships can be: far too often, we are unable to guess the truth of a loved one’s actions and face the difficulty of explaining the emotions that determine our own.