Off the Shelf: Historical novels that take place...

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

In biblical times

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word jezebel refers to “an impudent, shameless, or morally unrestrained woman.” For readers of the Bible, Jezebel was the evil wife of King Ahab, ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel. She was hated for bringing foreign gods to the land and trying to suppress the worship of the one true God. Unlike most queens of Israel, her name not only appears in the Bible, but is far better known today than those of many lesser male rulers. That fame – being written into the formal history of the kingdom, rather than serving as a nameless wife – forms the basis for Megan Barnard’s “Jezebel” (Penguin Books), which tells the story from the queen’s point of view.

Readers learn of Jezebel’s life in her native Tyre, including her pain when learning that, as a girl, she can never rule the kingdom. She vows that someday her name will be as well known as any ruler. When sent to Israel to marry Ahab as part of a political alliance between their fathers, she is not happy: she misses her home by the sea, and Ahab shows little interest in her or the politics of the kingdom. Unable at first to get pregnant, she makes herself indispensable to Ahab’s father and, after his death, helps her husband turn Israel from a poor kingdom to a prosperous land. That is, until the prophet Elijah appears and condemns her for building temples to her gods. The drought that his words bring is just the beginning of her downfall, although she clings to the idea that her name will be listed among the other kings who have ruled the land.

Unfortunately, Barnard creates a backstory for Jezebel and Elijah that may not convince readers who prefer their biblical fiction to hew closely to the text. In the early part of the novel, Elijah is a scribe for the king, and he and Jezebel become lovers. The differences in their approach to life are what drives them apart, even before Elijah becomes a prophet. However, those willing to keep an open mind will find the prophetic sections interesting, particularly after Elijah’s victory over the priestesses of Jezebel’s gods. What happens there won’t be a surprise to those who have read the Bible, but it’s fascinating to see it through the eyes of someone who views that destruction as a horrific massacre. And the description of Elijah after the event may change readers’ view of the prophet.

Barnard does an excellent job making Jezebel three-dimensional, showing her good points and acknowledging the mistakes she makes. The author does not pretend that Jezebel is perfect, but rather someone done a disservice – someone whose viewpoint is worth understanding. The novel will appeal to readers and book clubs interested in revisiting biblical stories from a woman’s point of view.

During the American Revolution

Fact and fiction: those words describe “The Spymaster’s Mistress” by Pamela R. Winnick (She Writes Press). Told through the eyes of two characters – the fictitious Rachel Gomez and the real life David Salisbury Franks – the novel offers a view of Jewish life during the Revolutionary War. 

Rachel is the daughter of a family that supports the revolution and is personally known for her opposition to British rule. When the British take over her hometown New York City, her father – who is helping fund the American army – takes her to live with relatives in Philadelphia. Unfortunately for Rachel, not only has this part of the family converted to Christianity, but they support the British. The British Army rules Philadelphia and, even though her hosts fraternize with them, Rachel plans to keep her distance. However, that changes when Rachel is offered the opportunity to help the American cause: she is asked to find and befriend a British soldier and pass his secrets to the American army. Rachel is hesitant and scared at first, but decides to be brave for the cause.

The only problem is that Rachel not only befriends the real life Captain John Andre, a handsome British officer, she finds herself falling in love with him. Andre prides himself on honesty in all his relationships, something Rachel struggles with since she knows the very basis of their connection is a lie. Meanwhile, David Franks is an aide for Benedict Arnold, whom he feels never gets appropriate credit for all he has done for the American cause. When Rachel and David separately learn that an American general may be deserting to the British cause, they must each decide where their loyalties lie. 

Although readers may be familiar with the American history that the novel covers, “The Spymaster’s Mistress” still managed to be exciting and suspenseful. The last chapters were also extremely moving since readers will have come to care deeply about the characters. Book clubs who enjoy American history will find much of interest. 

In Rome, Italy, in 1749

The inspiration for some historical novels comes strictly from real life. That’s the case with Joie Davidow’s “Anything But Yes: A Novel of Anna Del Monte, Jewish Citizen of Rome, 1749” (Monkfish). While other novels have looked at life in the Roman ghetto, few offer as clear a view of Jewish-Christian relations at that time. The work is based on the diary of a real person: Anna Del Monte who is violently ripped from her family and taken to a convent after someone claimed she was his fiancé and, like him, wanted to convert to Christianity. Anna clearly denies that she has any desire to convert and asks to be returned to her family. However, few in her position have escaped the clutches of the church or regained their former lives.

Davidow juggles several different points of view, including those of Anna’s family, who despair of ever seeing her again, even as they work behind the scenes to get her released. There are descriptions of the cramped, unpleasant life in the ghetto and the restrictions the Jews face there and when they travel to other parts of the city. Readers also learn of the Jewish converts to Christianity, who extol their lives to Anna, and the priests who try to convince her to convert to what they firmly believe is the only true religion. However, most of the novel belongs to Anna and focuses on the torment she feels.

Anna’s section may leave readers feeling claustrophobic: She’s locked in a small, uncomfortable room with little food and even less sleep. Priests keep her awake a good portion of the night offering lectures – in great detail – of how she will be tormented in hell if she does not convert. Theologians argue with Anna about the biblical text to prove that God wants her to become Christian. Several female converts try to convince Anna her life will be better if she will only but nod her head yes: one tries to tempt her with tales of a rich husband, while the other talks of her contentment living in the convent, far from the poverty of the ghetto. 

Anna speaks as little as possible – refusing to even answer questions or nod her head – in case that is taken to mean she is willing to convert. The droning voices of her visitors prevent her from sleep, which is a torture in itself. Some call her stubborn and insist they will force her to convert. Anna’s only answer is that she remains true to her religion and only wants to go home. She clings to her beliefs, but is so tired and lonely that she worries she may mistakenly do the wrong thing. The question becomes whether she will be able to hold out, or if the church will force her conversion before her family might be able to rescue her. 

Davidow does something truly impressive in “Anything But Yes”: she shows how each of the characters – Jewish and Gentile – truly believe in their God and their theology. These beliefs allow well-meaning Christians to be fundamentally and horribly cruel to Anna, since they think what they are doing is for her own good. These theological differences will form the basis of discussions at book clubs and Jewish study classes for what is a disturbing and, ultimately, fascinating novel.