Author: Sharon McKay
Publisher: Puffin Canada, 2004
So, Papa must be going to the matchmaker about her. But she was just fourteen! It was true that many girls were betrothed by twelve years of age, and some did marry at fourteen or fifteen, but Papa had always said that such an age was too young to marry.
Esther's head was spinning. She did not want to be married. Not even to a prince. She turned, and the room seemed to turn with her. Marriage. Babies. That's what awaited her. She would never be free. Never, never. Could walls move? Certainly at that moment they were closing in on her, closer, closer, so she could hardly breathe! Baby Samuel wailed in her arms. Oh, she had not meant to hold him so tightly.
The prospect of a life full of non-stop children and housework strikes fear in the heart of young Esther Brandeau in the 1730's. She is powerless to change her situation; as a female and as a Jew in France, her life is doubly restricted. Chance intervenes in the form of a shipwreck and sets her on a path of sometimes dangerous adventure that ends in the colony of New France. Sharon McKay has fictionalized the life of the first known Jew to live in New France. What is known is that Esther Brandeau was a Jewess from St. Esprit who masqueraded as a boy and held many different jobs, from footman to ship's cook, as she moved around the country. She arrived in New France in 1738 under the name of Jacques La Fargue. When her true identity was revealed, all efforts were unleashed to convert her to Roman Catholicism, as a law existed proscribing the presence of Jews and Hugenots in the colony. She resisted these entreaties and was finally sent back to France, with different accounts recording her stay in New France from one to as many as five years. Nothing is known about her after that.
The novel provides valuable general information about life in 18th century Europe and, in particular, about the lives of Jews and women. The small ghettoes within which Jews were confined were overcrowded and created horrible living conditions. Onerous taxes were imposed on them simply because of their religion. Laws restricted their movements, and they could be the object of physical attack at any moment. Many Jews converted to Roman Catholicism either by force or to escape relentless persecution that resulted in expulsions or death at the hands of the Inquisition.
It is the detail of Esther's struggle to survive that makes compelling reading. McKay imagines the possibility that, as a girl, Esther was groomed to become a courtesan for the French court. She has chosen to include all of Esther's known occupations in the story. Throughout, Esther must not only masquerade as a boy, binding her breasts, and using whatever materials she can gather to soak up the blood from her menstrual cycle, but she must also mimic Catholic prayers and rituals and endure the stupid songs, epithets and myths about Jews that were part of society. Her experiences make her wise; she realizes that some people, such as Marie de La Grange, were Jews who hid the truth to succeed in life. Her decision to remain a Jew affects her fate, but in the story she remains true to her faith.
Esther's adventures often land her in trouble, creating a sense of suspense as the reader wonders if she will get through each situation. McKay's research is extremely thorough. The minute details of life (defecation, menstruation) are informative and definitely force the reader to pause and visualize the struggle Esther faced as she battled through each day. In the drive to provide as much historical information as possible, though, the reader wonders when Esther will finally arrive in New France, which is the catalyst for the story being told. The intendant's intervention keeps
the reader grounded.
There are small issues that might confound the uninformed reader, such as when Esther is sent to live in the convent in Quebec City. She tells the Mother Superior that she speaks Dutch, Hebrew and Ladino. The narrator observes that Hebrew and Yiddish are of no use to the nun. Not many of today's youth will be educated enough to know that Ladino is the language of Sephardic Jews, a combination of Spanish, Hebrew, Turkish, Greek and Arabic, depending on where Jews who were expelled from Spain landed. Ladino is not the same as Yiddish, which is a Germanic dialect spoken by Ashkenazie Jews of Poland, Lithuania, Russia and other areas of Eastern Europe. Also, the cover art is too modern looking; it shows a very pretty Esther, complete with sculpted eyebrows, looking very demure in her stylish historical garb.
Esther's plight will resonate with adolescents, especially girls who have become aware in the past few years about the treatment of women in Afghanistan and other Muslim fundamentalist countries. There, girls are tolerated until they hit puberty, after which they must become invisible to all but their immediate families and are unable even to leave the house or make the smallest purchase without male accompaniment. They have no right to live or work independently, and education is limited. All decisions about a woman's future rests in the hands of their fathers and husbands. In so-called "modern" states such as Jordan, honour killings by male relatives still exist. It is not surprising that depression is a serious medical issue for women, and that starvation is a real possibility where women have been widowed or abandoned. Young girls have been know to pretend to be boys for as long as possible to support themselves and their families, risking rape and death.
Girls and women in orthodox Jewish families today are also trained to accept male domination. The social order of the most religious sects maintains traditional expectation of women.
The difficulties faced by modern day females in restrictive societies parallel the challenges Esther faced. Whatever the truth about her, the strength of character demonstrated in Esther's historical and fictional account can serve as a guiding light for girls who are considering their place in the world.
Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association