Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Book Review: Blue Thread by Ruth Tenzer Feldman. (Ooligan Press)

100 years ago, women in Oregon were, after their sixth petition, finally given the right to vote. Blue Thread is a YA novel set during this time in 1912 Portland, and follows the main character—sixteen-year old Miriam Josefsohn—in her discovery of, and growing involvement in, the women’s suffrage movement. Miriam wants nothing more than to work in her father’s print shop; however he is strongly opposed to this based solely on the fact that Miriam is female. Her parents want to marry her off to a nice Jewish boy, a fact which alarms Miriam… she may not even want to marry! She meets two sisters who have opened a milliners store in downtown Portland who are quite active in the suffrage movement, and when Miriam learns that her own father printed a scandalous postcard encouraging men to vote "no" during the last petition for suffrage she becomes outraged and flings herself into righting his wrong.

Author Ruth Tenzer Feldman has published many nonfiction books on historical figures and events for children and young adults, and this is her first novel. Her historian’s research is reflected in impeccable descriptions of clothing, mechanics—such as the old printing presses—and events throughout the novel, but Blue Thread is not just historical fiction. Fans of the fantastical YA novel, don’t despair—along with fighting for women’s suffrage, Miriam travels through time using a prayer shawl handed down through the women in her family that contains blue thread from Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors to encourage the Daughters of Zelophehad to petition Moses for women’s right to inherit land in the absence of a male heir. It’s in the Torah! Well, kind of.

Somehow it makes sense for a nonfiction author to allow her imagination to truly run free when writing a novel, and although I have not read a lot of YA the weaving of these two worlds happens pretty seamlessly, and seems fitting for the genre. The linking of these vastly different moments of women’s history, separated by thousands of years, came from an actual historical document that Tenzer Feldman references in the novel: a photograph from 1908 of a suffrage parade with women carrying a banner: LIKE THE DAUGHTERS OF ZELOPHEHAD WE ASK FOR OUR INHERITANCE.

While a relatively minor Biblical story, the Daughters of Zelophehad stood out to Tenzer Feldman when she studied the Torah. She says that Blue Thread is a “modern midrash—a narrative based on a centuries-old Jewish tradition of reinterpreting or 'spinning’ the facts or words in a text—often the Bible—into another story that adds to the original or pulls the reader into another time and place. Think ‘homily’ without the sermonizing.”

It’s hard to say how young readers will identify with an upper-middle-class Jewish girl from the early 20th century encouraging women to speak up to Moses, but I found Miriam an important literary heroine. Her indignation at being treated like a second-class citizen just because she was female is relatable across all time and cultures. What started as personal became political when she sees she is not the only person being treated like this. The magical prayer shawl does not figure prominently, but it is an important novelistic device that symbolizes the thread running through all generations before us, and all generations to come to fight against oppression. Plus time travel is really cool and I have not read about a lot of young female heroines who do it!

The nonfiction side of Tenzer Feldman’s brain pushes it way back to the forefront, after the novel is done doing its fiction, by an afterward that documents what is true and not true in the story. Tenzer Feldman touchingly ends with: “The magic in Miriam’s prayer shawl is real. It is that quality of something inside us that pushes us to do the right thing when we least expect it.” That’s a lesson that should ring true no matter what century a young woman finds herself in.

This blog was first published by Bitch Media.

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