Monday, August 20, 2007

The Garden of Ruth

by Eva Etzioni-Halevy (New York: Plume Books [Penguin], 2007), 293 pp.

The author of this book promoted it avidly to me, which inclined me to dislike it, but I don't.

At first I thought it was going to be an historical excuse for a romance novel, but I changed my mind. What's best about the book is its meticulous but not overburdened description of a place and time familiar from the Hebrew bible. Actually, two places and times. The first heroine of the book, Osnath, is a literate young woman who arrives in Bethlehem as a visitor, just in time to meet the young shepherd David who is first showing the signs of talent and leadership that will make him a king. The two sides of that king's personality are also soon apparent - I'll say no more, in case you read the book.

Osnath, being literate, starts looking around her host's scroll room and finds some fragments of writing that intrigue her. The main plot of the book is her successful investigation of the story of David's grandmother, Ruth, the Moabite whom many remember as allying herself with her mother-in-law Naomi: "whither thou goest, I shall go..."

Halevy fills in the blanks of that rather sketchy story of Ruth in a plausible manner that includes facts of ancient family law - in this book, somewhat laxly enforced. Of considerable interest to me as a feminist were the parts dealing with polygamy and the areas of sexual liberty the heroines explore. It almost felt like watching a barrel race, seeing the author guide her story this way and that between the givens of the biblical story and related facts.

Something that is pleasing but also possibly dubious about The Garden of Ruth is the almost modern sensibility that the author creates for her protagonists, who lived approximately 3,000 years ago. Looking on the web, I found the author's website and her Study Guide for the book. Here's a sample question:

14. Although this story takes place in biblical times, some of the issues Ruth deals with--unwanted pregnancy, religious persecution versus tolerance, religious conversion--are still relevant today. Discuss these issues as they relate to the time of the novel and the modern day. Have people progressed since biblical times? Are we any more adept at dealing with these situations than Ruth was?

The idea that a woman or women may have written some biblical literature is not new. See, for example, The Book of J by David Rosenberg and Harold Bloom (NY: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990), a re-translation and analysis of writings from the time of David's son Solomon, opining that the anonymous author must have been a woman.

One of the things I wondered about in The Garden of Ruth was the fictional tale-writer's name, Osnath. The only traces I found of this word on the web related to Sarah (or Sara) Osnath-Halevy, a 1930s folk-singer from Yemen Perhaps a relative of the author? I asked Etzioni-Halevy - emailing her in Israel - and she'd never heard of the singer. She says that Osnath was the name of Joseph's wife, and that her heroine was from that same tribe, the tribe of Efraim.

Etzioni-Halevy's historical note at the back of the book explains that her novel is set in the time of transition between the rule of the judge/prophet/generals (Osnath's uncle is the judge/prophet Samuel, who anoints David) and the time of the kings. In a way, you could say that federalism was taking place among the tribes. These developments are mentioned in The Garden of Ruth, but as background.[NB: There are disputes among historians as to the times of Biblical events and indeed whether many of them happened at all as reported.]

Probably my biggest disappointment in this book was that Etzioni-Halevy chooses a thoroughly heterosexual reason for Ruth to follow Naomi from Moab to Bethlehem. Their relationship was nicely depicted as somewhat fond but largely practical. I'm waiting for someone else to write a version in which Ruth and Naomi are in love with each other, and having babies for Boaz is just a job.