Just Another Sword-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl (Book Review)

30 May

Just before Passover, I quizzed the bookseller at Brookline Booksmith about what books would make good Afikoman-hunting prizes for our seder. Among our guests was Sam, a 10-year-old boy whom I had not yet met. My one criterian, I told the bookseller, was that I wanted books about Jewish characters. For Sam I thought perhaps a book about Jewish sports figures. (Okay, yes, I was stereotyping because I usually only buy books for girls.)

The bookseller recommended Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword (Abrams, 2010), a graphic novel by Barry Deutsch.  Now, I LOVE a good graphic novel, but I was a bit concerned that it was about a girl. Mirka isn’t just any girl, though. She is a troll-fighting, odds-defeating middle sister.   She’s drawn to monsters and all sorts of trouble; peppers her speech with Yiddish; and loves a good argument. But, she’s a girl.  My wonderful bookseller, himself an observant Jewish young man, convinced me that it was okay.

I needn’t have worried. Sam opened the package, sat down at the table and began to read. According to his mother, he finished the book that night and then read it several more times.

I needed to know what the big deal was about Mirka.

Simply put, Mirka rocks.  She is stifled by the womanly arts that her Orthodox upbringing requires of her. As the book opens, she is knitting slowly and responding to her stepmother’s criticism with astute circular reasoning.  When Fruma notes that Mirka has dropped a stitch, Mirka says that if Hashem preordains everything, then He must have preordained that she drop the stitch.They go round and round in logical argument, thus delaying Mirka’s knitting. Hereville combines culture and adventure; Yiddish and magic, fantasy and adolescent angst. On her way to fighting the trolls, Mirka conquers a couple of bullies, real life monsters who terrorize her little brother Zindel.

Mirka is strong, adventurous, and fearless.  After striking a bully with a rock, she flees into the woods where she happens upon a house she has never seen before. If that weren’t enough, there is a woman floating in the air near a big tree. Mirka returns with her siblings to show them. Growing on the fence are the largest grapes she’s ever seen. Even though her big sister Gittel says it’s stealing, Mirka takes one. And thus begins the adventure of a lifetime, for Mirka has upset the magic talking pig who lives with the woman (a witch). Mirka has no idea what a pig is, having kept kosher all her life. She thinks he is some kind of magic monster, related to trolls. And she really wants to fight a trolls and win a magic sword. The pig creates all kinds of trouble for her.   I’m not going to reveal any more except to say that there is a troll, a sword, a ghost, a witch, and a good stepmother.

I can see why Sam reread this book multiple times. The comic-strip style images evoke emotion, convey information about Hereville’s Orthodox community, and keep you turning pages. Fruma has the longest nose in Hereville and, according to the narrator, Mirka quickly got used to it. It takes the reader about 5 pages. Maybe it is because Fruma also has the kindest eyes. The girls in Mirka’s school create a social code within the confines of their strict Orthodox dress code: Simply by how high or low they wear their skirts, whether they tuck in their blouses, or how they wear their hair, the girls identify as The Rebel Girl, The Frum (Pious) Girl, or The Popular Girl. While this information is an “aside” from the story, it enhances our understanding of the limits Mirka has to live within.   Yiddish phrases are sprinkled throughout, with asterisked explanations.Herevilleseems contemporary, yet it is a land without cell phones, telephones, or other digital distractions.

Mirka is being raised to find a husband. Until a match is made, her life is to be lived among girls and women and boys to whom she is related. But, Mirka wants to fight dragons. She dreams of being a hero. She dreams, like Dorothy, of a more colorful life. And like Dorothy, after her adventures, home looks good.

Mirka may be the coolest troll-fighting girl ever. That she is an Orthodox Jew is icing on the cake, adding cultural and religious texture that deepens the sense of an adolescent girl just trying to find her own way.

It’s a must read.

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