Set in late-medieval Eastern Europe, Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver has as its heroine a Jewish girl, named Miryem Mandelstam, who is abducted by a group of supernatural beings called the Staryk. Michael Weingrad finds the book’s Jewish characters entirely deracinated, and its message one of superficial tolerance:
More unbelievable than any supernatural element [in Spinning Silver] is that the Jewish and Christian characters are friendly to the point of (sometimes literal) cuddliness. Indeed, Miryem’s rescue, and the saving of all of Lithvas [the book’s fictionalized version of Lithuania], from an eternal winter conjured by the Staryk king, is made possible because of her friendships with the peasant girl Wanda and her brothers. In fact, Miryem’s and Wanda’s families eventually decide to live together in one big house. The book even ends with an interfaith (and interspecies) marriage between Miryem and the Staryk king. (Of course, Miryem insists they have a ceremony with a rabbi; no word yet on how they’re planning to raise the children.) Wanda and her brother Sergey sign the k’tubah [Jewish marriage contract] as witnesses.
Sure, all this beats a pogrom. But given that Novik clearly intends the book to work as a commentary on the situation of Jews in the East European past, the result is an unconvincing muddle. In Novik’s fairy tale, anti-Semitism (along with most other problems) seems mainly a result of economic inequity, scarcity, and greed. If people would just learn to share instead of seeking profits and hoarding wealth, it would go away. But this is only remotely plausible because Novik has stocked her book not with anything resembling historical Jews and Christians but with 21st-century secular liberals who have no commitment to group identity in the first place.
“I confess I had never been very attached to Torah,” says Miryem. (It doesn’t help that Novik has Miryem repeatedly cite the story of Judith and Holofernes as Jewish “color.” Novik seems not to know that the book of Judith is part of the Christian scriptural canon, not the Jewish Bible.) For that matter, none of Novik’s main characters, Jew or Christian, expresses any attachment to peoplehood, religion, or nation. Tellingly, Novik’s Litvaks don’t even speak Yiddish.