So, if you read Jezebel, Salon, MetaFilter, or even Newsweek, you’ve probably seen some of the shock, outrage, and horror at Kate Breslin’s For Such a Time, a novel in which a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jew “falls in love” with the (fictional) Kommandant of Theresienstadt, who rescues her from Dachau. (I will not be linking to this book. If you really want to buy it, you can find it yourself. I borrowed my copy because I refused to contribute money to it.) Most of the outrage is generated by people who haven’t read the book. “This is so offensive and wrong on its face that it has no ability to be redeemed, so I can criticize it without reading it.”
Well, yes. I can see why one would feel that way, but at a certain point if you’re going to talk about what’s wrong with a book, you have to actually deal with the book itself. So, I read it. As far as I can see, this book fails in four major ways:
- Basic story craft
Now, others far wiser than I in the knowledge of history will take up the challenge of pointing out the many, many, many egregious, offensive, outrageous historical mistakes Breslin makes. I am going to treat this as if I came to it without a personal history that includes being the child of a refugee, and try to contain and control the fury and pain that it caused me to read it. If some of that slips through, I apologize. You may also want to stop now. This is a LONG post and although I try to avoid the most explicit triggers, I can’t do so and provide an adequate picture of what is so utterly and thoroughly awful about the text.
One of the things that drove me to actually sit down and read this book is that there was a lot of debate in the community about whether or not Stella, aka Hadassah, who is supposed to represent Esther in this “retelling of the Book of Esther,” converts to Christianity.
Now that I’ve read the book, I still can’t tell you. And here’s why:
Stella isn’t a Jew. In fact, there are no Jews in this book. The Jews here are sort of incomplete Christians, proto-Christians. They don’t eat pork or read the New Testament, but other than that, they’re basically Christians. Does Stella convert? Certainly, she takes to carrying the Christian Bible around with her and getting her advice from bits of the New Testament. If she started off as an actual Jew, I’d say she converted. But since she’s never really very Jewish, I have no idea.
In the world of romance, we use the term “wallpaper historical” when a romance between two entirely modern characters is set in, say, the 17th century. These are wallpaper Jews.
Here’s a passage from one of the supposedly Jewish children in the book about one of the other Jews who was killed:
“Then she’s in heaven.” Again he spoke with the conviction of an innocent heart. “Mama told me going to heaven would be wonderful. She said she would never need a coat, ’cause it’s always summertime and there’s lots of Strudel so you never go hungry. They would never have to dig holes or shovel dirt, and they could sing and dance all day ’cause the angels would play music on accordions and trumpets.”
Yeah…no. Not Jewish. Sure, some Jews have an idea of afterlife before resurrection (Judaism allows for a lot of different views on this topic), but this is a particularly Christian “heaven,” with angels and trumpets.
Twice during the book, Stella refers to herself as a Mischling, which is so far wrong I can’t even…it’s as if I were to think fondly of myself as a Kike. (And make no mistake, she does think of herself fondly using that term.) Here’s the direct quote:
“Hadassah Benjamin, a Mischling, half Jew, bursting with a young woman’s exuberance, had ceased to exist. In her place stood Stella Muller, subdued Austrian bookkeeper and suitable stock for the Third Reich.”
Let me be perfectly clear about this: there is no such thing as a “half-Jew” and no Jew thinks of themselves that way unless they are absolutely filled with self-hatred.
And then there’s the scene where the escaping Jews, despite all the wood fires that have been described throughout the story, decide to smear themselves with the ashes of cremated Jews so that they can pretend they are … other Jews than the Jews they are. I will admit that I was so blind with fury over this that I couldn’t exactly understand why Stella thought ashing themselves was necessary.
How would they convince the guards that they were the sick bound for Auschwitz?
Her answer came when Mrs. Brenner returned from the Krematorium carrying a single box of ashes. “These must have been overlooked,” the older woman said in a quiet voice.
“I don’t think they would mind the sacrilege.”
Hadassah took the box and held it reverently. Reaching inside, she withdrew some of the ash and wiped it over her face, neck, and any other exposed skin. She thought of those who died in this place, and the many who must now stay behind to await death so that the rest of them could live. Moving from person to person, she offered each a handful of the ash, watching as they covered themselves in the only disguise that would fool the guards at the station. The souls of Jews . . .
What. The. Actual. Fuck.
Aside from that, this underscores the way Stella thinks. It’s not “the ashes of my family,” “the souls of my people;” it’s “othering” at its finest. Although she holds the box reverently, she’s pretty damn glib about the dead “not minding the sacrilege.” And we see no actual suffering in her at it.
And then there’s Aric, our “hero.” I am pretty sure he’s supposed to come to his faith at the end of this book, but there’s nothing Christian about his attitude. Ever. He’s an all-around deplorable person whose attitude throughout the book is “me first, everyone else second.” He “rescues” Stella from Dachau because he doesn’t want a black mark on his record, keeps her because he wants to have sex with her, reads banned books because they give him pleasure, and finally decides to help a couple thousand Jews escape because he can’t stand the idea of losing his girlfriend. He never, ever, does an unselfish thing. And at the end, when he’s “apologizing,” he says
“But the world will still hold me accountable for taking part in Hitler’s scheme,” he continued. “Even now, when I think of the apathy I once held toward your people, it grieves me. If I’d had your courage, I could have done so much more. . . .”
Dude. That wasn’t apathy. It was genocide. It was actively evil. It was turning your back on the God you claim to worship who commanded that you look out for those who cannot look out for themselves.
Which brings me to my last problem with the theological aspects of this book: It’s supposed to be a retelling of Esther. For those who who don’t remember Esther, it’s a relatively short book you can read it in numerous places online. But in short, Esther is a Jewish woman who becomes part of the harem of King Ahasuerus. Ahasuerus is basically an apathetic guy and his evil second, Haman, who hates the Jews, pretty much runs things. Haman orders the murder of all the Jews and Esther—because she is a Jew and has faith in her God and reveres her heritage—manages to prevent the extermination.
Yes, it’s more complicated than that. But the key to the savior of the Jews is Esther’s Judaism combined with the fact that Ahasuerus didn’t care all that much about the Jews one way or the other. Stella the proto-Christian is no Esther, and Aric—who talks to Eichmann as a matter of course—is no Ahasuerus.
Aric, indeed, is a conflation of Ahasuerus and Haman, which leaves Breslin no choice but to create “Hermann,” an even-more-evil second in command to Aric. Which makes Hermann just a cardboard villain. So evil you sort of imagine the words coming out of his mouth sounding like an adult in a Charlie Brown television show.
And Stella, who is supposed to stand in for Esther, has no faith at all. When God starts speaking to her through her “Magic Bible” (you really should read that review, because Rachel tells the story of the Magic Bible very well and I can’t think of it any other way now), she adopts both Testaments (in German, not in the sacred language of her people) as her own. She rejects her God at every turn, which makes Breslin’s statement that “It was my intent to write a book that told a more modern-day story of a courageous Jewish woman who, through strength and faith in her God, used her situation to try to save some of her beloved people—much in the way Esther saved hers” even more ridiculous.
This is less Esther retelling than lustful Esther fanfic, which brings me to…
The theological problems with the book are much more severe and complex than I had time for, so if you’re still here after my incomplete overview, I appreciate it. Let’s talk about romance.
Many people have said that romance as a genre is chock full of problematic power dynamics. This is true. It’s also true that I don’t particularly care for the excessive power imbalances (see my post on alphaholes), so if you love those kinds of dynamics, you may find this part of my post less than convincing.
I’ve seen people say “look, we don’t have problems believing the motorcycle club romances, and those guys are horrible to women.” Yep. And I don’t read those books. But even if I did, there’s a distinct difference between the average MC alphahole and a guy who literally threatens his lover with murder.
Says our hero: “as easily as I netted you from that cesspool Dachau, I can toss you back.”
Yep. He’s a winner.
Here’s the bottom line: for a romance to occur, the relationship has to be consensual. How hard is that to understand. When a woman gets involved with a spy, an assassin, a motorcycle club member, she has a choice. Where there is no choice, there can be no consent.
Aric literally holds Stella’s life in his hands. She has been abused, terrified, starved, and threatened with murder. The fact that she is attracted to the first person to offer her food, safety, and warm clothing does not mean she is in love with him, it means she is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. The fact that he doesn’t see how wrong it is to take advantage of that does not make him any kind of hero. In fact, nowhere in the book does Aric ever look at their relationship and go “you know, this isn’t fair to her” or even “I should be a better person.” Nor does he have to. He just has to stop killing Jews. There’s no fundamental shift or growth in his personality.
Look, I’ve said many times that people should write what they want to write. But I also reserve the right to read those things critically and to call out the really horrible things I believe they say. There is nothing in this book that says “love” to me. Not “love of God” or “love of each other.”
At the end, we are supposed to believe there will be a happily ever after between Hadassah and Aric, and they’ll adopt Joseph, the young Jewish boy who believes in heaven. Where will this happy family of a war criminal, a proto-Christian, and a Jewish child live? Where will they worship?
[Aric] let out a ragged breath. “When the war is over, I must face whatever justice metes out—”
“You won’t face it alone, my son.”
Hadassah turned to see her uncle approach, along with Yaakov Kadlec. “We will be there, too. We’ll tell them of your actions and how you saved us all. I believe they will listen. After all”—her tatteh smiled—“God is on our side.”
“Yes, He is,” Hadassah said, and as she tucked the pearl into her apron pocket, she laid her palm against the miraculous Bible that held the photograph she would soon return to her beloved. The story of Elijah rose in her mind. “Whatever our future holds, Aric, God will be there to guide us,” she said, gazing up at the man she loved. “We have only to listen.”
A soft breeze arose at that moment, steady and sweet across the hills of Lvov. And Hadassah smiled, hearing His whisper.
I’m a little unclear here whose whisper Hadassah the used-to-be-a-Jew-but-carries-a-Christian-bible is supposed to be hearing. She and Aric have never once discussed anything about their relationship. The enormous obstacle of differing faiths is never even mentioned. Entire romance novels have been written with nothing but differences in religion as their conflict and everyone I know knows at least one couple who’s broken up over it (or never gotten together at all because of it). The idea that they can ignore the elephant in the room is enraging. Especially since they’re going to be raising a child together.
Plus I find this whole finale way too pat and “ooh, look, let’s slap a happy face on this horror show! It’s a romance, so there has to be a happily ever after!”
Which brings me to…
Lack of basic craft
This was probably the most disappointing area of the book for me. I expected bad theology and Stockholm Syndrome in place of romance, but reviews had said at least that it was well-written. It wasn’t.
Okay, with the exception of one unintentionally hilarious editing gaffe, there were no grammatical errors and she used some lovely metaphors. But let’s start with some basics.
We know the heroine is the heroine not only because she’s blonde and blue-eyed but because every villain, male and female alike, wants to rape her. Literally every single time we meet a new Nazi, we find out how warm s/he is for her form.
When we first meet Stella, she does not know how she has come to where she is from Dachau. She is starved. And then she sees Aric out the window:
The faint purr of a car’s engine drew her attention back to the window. A black Mercedes approached the chalet, cutting a path through the snow that concealed the road. The disjointed white cross of the Hakenkreuz emblazoned its door.
Jew Killers. Stella froze as the Nazi staff car pulled up beside the house. Fragments of memory collided with her mounting apprehension. The gritty-faced Kapo—a Jew trusted by the Nazis to guard their Block of prisoners at Dachau—had stuffed her into the blue dress. The feel of warm wool against her skin as she was wrapped in a blanket and carried. The dark trunk of a car . . .
The driver wore the black uniform of the Schutzstaffel and exited first before rushing around to open the passenger door. The man who emerged next stood tall and broad-shouldered in a heavy greatcoat. His presence evoked every aspect of authority. Dominance. Even the cane he gripped in his right hand failed to diminish his aura of power.
He looked up at her window. Stella’s heart pounded. Did some intuitive force reveal to him her hiding place, or had he already known? She pulled back from the sill, then quickly changed her mind, meeting his stare.
His face was a canvas of strength—rock-hard features fortified with asperity, amplified by the grim line at his mouth and the tautness of his squared jaw. Features much accustomed to pain. More in giving it than receiving it, she decided.
Not just no, but FUCK NO. This is like a cheesy, badly written romance meeting between a sub and her fated Dom. In fact, every poorly-characterized, trite trope that romance is branded with is evident in this novel. For example, when Aric is a caricature of the dissolute Regency rake:
Aric released a self-deprecating laugh as he tipped his glass to swirl its golden contents. He should have realized his folly then, that he’d intended more than to simply feed her, dress her in new clothes, and send her on her way. Erasing one or two black marks from his soul—that is, if he still had one.
And then there are the numerous times I felt like saying “that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.” Like the apathy comment above, or this:
His gentle tone affected her like an unwanted caress. Traitorous heat rose in her face. She felt as if she’d lost some unspoken battle between them.
If you’re female and you take public transportation, chances are you’ve experienced an unwanted caress. Is this how you felt?
My kindle insists that there are only 12 mentions of doves in the book, but it sure feels like more. In fact, in my notes I have “For fuck’s sake, can we stop with the fucking doves?” It’s the same with “salvation,” which my Kindle thinks appears only 22 times (almost exclusively with Stella being the savior of her people), but I felt as if I was being clubbed over the head with it until I was blind.
And the characterizations are brutally inconsistent. Stella’s uncle Morty first thinks:
[Stella] could be Herr Kommandant’s wife—or his mistress. Either way, she was lucky to have landed on the safe side of the fence.
But then, a couple of chapters later, we get
Morty ground his teeth. Must she sell her body to a Nazi in order to stay alive?
But really, the problem with the craft in this book is much deeper than any of that, and it’s hard to explain. Never, at any time in this book, was I ever afraid anything bad would happen to anyone I cared about. Despite the horror upon horror upon horror that reads a little like torture-porn, there is no sense of menace in the book. Maybe it was the cardboard characters or the hammering home of certain words that kept taking me out of the text, but the only time the book actually moved me was when the elders gave up their places on the “freedom train” to the children. And that’s just plain sentimentality. A scene like that doesn’t take a particular talent to move an audience with. It’s emotional manipulation that’s almost too easy.
And then there’s the whole ridiculous “let’s steal a train!” plot. And the battle on the roof of said train. Seriously.
Look, I write romantic suspense. I understand the impulse to heighten the adventure quotient. But this is not how you do it unless you’re writing a freaking Michael Bay film. I started laughing. Which, quite frankly, I appreciated by that point, though I am sure it wasn’t her intent.
So why did it garner praise? Like a starred review from Library Journal?
The short answer? I have no idea.
The sadder answer: I rather suspect that it’s because a large number of people think that “controversial” is necessarily the same as “important” and “important” gets conflated with “good.”
(If your question is “how did it final for a RITA, see Alexis Hall’s excellent post.)
But here’s the thing. This is not an important work of literature and it’s definitely not good. It’s destructive, ahistorical, crass, and poorly written. And it is damaging to both Jews and Christians alike. It is beyond me how Bethany House could not see that it hurts their evangelical cause more than it helps.
Comments for this post are on because I got a LOT more out of this book by reading it with others who could help me work my way through it so I don’t want to stop anyone else who wants to discuss, but I will be ruthless with trolls.