It’s been awfully quiet here hasn’t it? An entire week has sped by with nary a morsel from this ravenous reader. There has been reading, but also gardening and music making and walking outdoors, as I feast my senses on the first wondrous days of spring.
These lilies, a combination Mother’s Day/Anniversary gift, will eventually find their way into my front garden. For now, they’re sitting on my breakfast table, soaking up the morning sun. Their graceful elegance takes my breath away, catching me by surprise as I go about my homely little kitchen tasks.
I’ve been reading one book this entire week, and while it usually irks me to spend so long on a book, I’m perfectly content to let this one spin out slowly so I can luxuriate in every word and nuance. I chanced upon it quite by accident last weekend at a monstrously huge book sale, the author’s name quite jumping out at me from the rows of books on the shelves. “Lilian Nattel!” I exclaimed to myself. “I know Lilian Nattel!”
Having read Lilian’s blog, it was no surprise that her book would capture my heart immediately. The story is centered around life in a shtetl (a Jewish settlement) just outside Warsaw in the late 19th century, and is built around the lives and experiences of four women – Misha, the midwife, who conceives a child out of wedlock; Faygela, who tries to maintain her love of learning while raising an ever growing family; Hanna-Leah, who can’t conceive the child she wants so badly; and Zisa-Sara, who moved to America with her scholar husband, where they both died, leaving two children behind. Supporting characters include men and children, who round out this picture of community life.
The novel is structured in such a way that a series of core events is seen from the perspective of each woman, as well as some of the men in their lives. So the reader re-lives these events over and over and again, but sees them slightly differently each time, coming full circle by novel’s end.
It’s obvious that countless hours of research went into the writing of this book, for the portrayal of life in the shtetl is so vivid and true. Yet, unlike some other well researched historical novels which bombard the reader with too much information, the wealth of historical ideas and images flows effortlessly through The River Midnight. After reading for a while, I’m startled find myself in a suburban living room, rather than in Misha’s cottage surrounded by herbs and potions, or in Alta Fruma’s parlor, laying the white tablecloth for Shabbas. It’s one of those rare books the reader doesn’t just read, but actually resides in.
One of the best things about this book blogging adventure is the ability to “meet” some marvelous writers and gain insight into their lives and thoughts apart from their work. Reading their books then becomes an even richer experience – at least it does for me – and I’m excited to see so many authors using this opportunity to make contact with their readers in a new way. And while The River Midnight was first published in 1999 (before blogging became a way of life!), it’s a timeless tale of people and relationships and religion and community life – one well worth reading and savoring for more than a week!
The River Midnight, by Lilian Nattel
published 1999, Scribner Paperback Fiction
With Recommended Reading compiled by the author
and Readers Group Guide