by Ellen Kushner
Illustrated by Ilene Winn-Lederer
Well, not really a Chanukah Nutcracker, but Ellen Kushner — the host of Public Radio International’s Sound & Spirit — was inspired by the klezmer orchestra, Shirim, to write this book. Shirim had created a klezmer version of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” for the Chanukah season, and — as the Charlesbridge site puts it — “Ellen decided she wanted to right [sic] a story based on The Nutcracker, but with a Jewish flavor. Instead of Clara going to a Christmas party and receiving a nutcracker that turns into a prince from her uncle, Sara goes to a Chanukah party and receives an enchanted dreydl from her aunt and it turns into a princess — a girl her own age who accompanies her on a magical journey through a mystic kingdom.” A stage adaptation was written and then brought to life, followed by a performance on Sound and Spirit (here’s more information on both). If you go to the book’s home on Charlesbridge’s site, you can listen to a lively clip.
The novel form of Kushner’s story was published this July. “It was the holiday season, but Sara was not happy.” Her friends are celebrating Christmas, and Sara longs for the big, glittering trees; Christmas cookies; and everything in between, telling her mother, “Jews are weird.” At her Aunt Leah’s party, the Chanukah candles were lit, the menorahs were sparkling, and the house was full of family, but Sara wants nothing to do with it. When her mysterious Tante Miriam shows up at the party after many years of absence, she gives Sara a shiny, gold metal Chanukah dreydl, “almost as big as a book.” After her brother grabs it and she knocks it out of his hands, it flies through the air and shatters her Aunt Leah’s television screen. Later, in the middle of the night, Sara hears a voice calling to her from the crack in the t.v.: “Come on! Hurry up! Tante Miriam crossed the Red Sea — are you scared to follow through here? . . . Come on, girl, don’t be a chicken!” Sara flies through the television and meets her gift of the golden dreydl — but personified in the form of a peppy, young girl. The rest of the novel tells the story of how Sara comes to find out that the girl was pretending to be a dredyl — and why — involving hordes of demons in Solomon’s Cave, including the fire-breathing Demon King, King Ashmedai and his pal, Ornias; Belkis, Queen of Sheba; the Tree of Life; a talking peacock; King Solomon the Wise himself; and lots of riddles. Sara also learns a great deal about Tante Miriam, whose true identity is eventually revealed to her.
Here’s the thing: I’d love to hear Kushner’s inspired story in its radio form or to see it performed on stage, but I agree with the School Library Journal review that, as a novel, it falls flat (“Cardboard characters, a convoluted plot, and a veneer of modern cool weigh it down”). I really wanted to like it and can only imagine that the Sound & Spirit version is an enchanting one, indeed (knowing what a great show that radio program is). And kudos to Kushner for presenting readers/listeners with a “Jewish-flavored” Nutcracker of sorts. Lovers of fantasy (and riddles) may enjoy the fantasy adventure the novel is and its brisk pace may hold their interest as a read-aloud, but the characters were too flat and the lessons-learned in the end too heavy-handed for my taste.
Most disappointing, though, was the lack of background information on the folklore incorporated into the story. Steve Silverman of Jewish Book World Magazine praised Kushner for doing “an admirable job of combining Jewish folklore and holiday traditions with an appealing fantasy story,” but, as someone who knows very little about the folk tales weaved into the narrative, I would have loved some background notes. The book includes a glossary, which includes terms relating to Jewish life and culture, but it didn’t give me nearly enough background information on the Jewish folklore. Mind you, I still understood the dramatic action, but I would have enjoyed reading some background on the tales — and so would other non-Jewish children, I would think. To be sure, I can take my Gentile butt to the library and read up on, say, mighty Autothith (“bringer of headaches and hangnails”), but a short note at the close of the book about this story and all the others — and where they fit into the Jewish faith — would be even better, especially if they’re going to be crowded into the dialogue of characters.
(For the record, Hazel Rochman gave the title a good review in Booklist: “. . . The chatty storytelling is fast, furious, and sometimes funny, especially the riddles of the vicious king . . . and scattered throughout are delicate black-and-white illustrations that capture the magical realism. Kids will enjoy the fantasy adventure, as well as the contemporary family standoffs; they’ll also be interested in Tante Miriam’s explanation of the dreydl’s symbols. This will be fun for reading aloud.”)
Winn-Lederer’s black-and-white and (mostly) pen-and-ink illustrations are at times captivating; other times, it seems the perspective is a bit off in a few of the drawings. When I take a gander at illustrations in color such as this one and this one at her site, I’m enchanted. She seems to be at her best when working with vivid colors. I mean, just look at this, my friends.
I admit this review is hard to write. I love just hearing Kushner’s voice on Sound & Spirit. I’m sure her narrated version of this story in Shirim’s Klezmer Orchestra’s original musical adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker on the radio and on CD and in live performances is animated and fun (and I’ve read as much). I might have found the book lacking, but I hope to hear the tale one day, complete with Shirim’s lively performances.
Note: To read Part One of my new-holiday-titles-review round-up, go here for a review of N is for Navidad.