The world of romance writing isn’t all hearts and flowers.
A number of prominent writers in the genre have begun speaking out against a romance novel called For Such a Time by an evangelical Christian writer, Kate Breslin. Full disclosure: I have not read the entire book. I’ve read a sample chapter, the promotional copy and the reviews of people I trust. And to quote a great editor, “I don’t have to eat the whole egg to know it is rotten.”
The hero of the book is an SS Kommandant who rescues the heroine from a firing squad in Dachau and brings her to Theresienstadt as his personal secretary. She’s blonde and blue-eyed, and he believes she’s not Jewish even though he knows she was raised in a Jewish family. They fall in love with the help of a magic Bible (!). The story is designed to be a retelling of The Book of Esther, with the prisoner Hadassah as Esther, and the high-ranking Nazi Aric as Ahasueros. (I guess that makes Hitler Haman?)
At last month’s Romance Writers of America (RWA) annual convention, the book was nominated for a RITA Award (the Oscars of the $1.8 billion romance industry!) for Best First Book and Best Inspirational Romance. (“Inspirational” is genre lingo for Christian.) At the end of the book, Hadassah converts to Christianity. Hadassah and Aric are redeemed by faith and unconditional love.
The book didn’t win either award. But it did receive a starred review in Library Journal, while Romantic Times Book Reviews called it “phenomenal” and “hauntingly beautiful.” And it has thus far received hundreds of five-star reviews on Amazon.
Sarah Wendell, the editor of the book review website Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and author of two well-reviewed books about the genre, wrote a disbelieving letter to the Romance Writers of America board that she also shared on her blog.
She presented the RWA with statistics and links about Thereisenstadt, a transit camp, labor camp and propaganda effort by the Nazis. Over 140,000 Jews were “resettled” there; over a quarter died of starvation and disease; most of the rest were sent to Auschwitz and Treblinka. As Wendell points out, “In For Such a Time, the hero is redeemed and forgiven for his role in a genocide. [Emphasis hers.] The stereotypes, the language, and the attempt at redeeming an SS officer as a hero belittle and demean the atrocities of the Holocaust. The heroine’s conversion at the end underscores the idea that the correct path is Christianity, erases her Jewish identity, and echoes the forced conversions of many Jews before, during, and after the Holocaust.”
(Before you say, BUT WAIT, what about Summer of My German Soldier? I say: Not parallel. Anton, unlike Aric, has no power. He’s a teenager, in America, an abused POW who is actually anti-Nazi. The author of that book is a Jew, and the heroine does not have to convert to Christianity to become her best self.)
In an email interview, Wendell told me, “Books like this don’t happen in a vacuum, so a lot of people from the author to the editor to the publisher to reviewers for various publications to the judges all missed how painfully offensive the story is. I question their knowledge of history and their judgment.”
Wendell’s post was quickly picked up by a number of other prominent authors, some Jewish and some not. Rose Lerner, author of a thoughtful, well-researched historical romance novel featuring a Jewish hero and non-Jewish heroine, mockingly quoted a Goodreads review of For Such a Time that gushed, “Together they find that barriers between the Nazis and Jews can be torn down and they can coexist, after all, they are both human.” She appended a Jack Handey quote: “Why do the caterpillar and the ant have to be enemies? One eats leaves, and the other eats caterpillars. Oh, I see now.”
Courtney Milan, a big (non-Jewish) macher in the industry, tweeted, “This is not what something looks like when fringe judges let something through. This is what a systemic problem looks like.”
Jews are in an interesting position. While the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement advocates for increased representation in publishing, we People of the Book already have plenty of editorial jobs. And yet positive portrayals of Jewish characters in genre fiction are surprisingly hard to find. Jewish writers talk about being told to de-Jewify their work. We aren’t embraced by the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, and we also aren’t doing a good job of showing off our own diverse community. I wonder if there isn’t some unexamined self-hatred going on; Jews have ruled the world of comedy writing for generations, but there wasn’t a wedding between two Jewish characters on a sitcom until 2002.
The upshot: Do not buy this surely well-intentioned but wildly insensitive Holocaust novel. I didn’t link to it for a reason. Let’s continue to advocate, both from within and outside our own tribe, for more Jewish stories. Let’s look outside Holocaust and shtetl narratives and tell stories about Sephardic Jews, non-white Jews, contemporary Jews, Jews in space. For right now, go buy Wendell’s own charming, writ-small novella about two former counselors at a Jewish summer camp who reunite to run a Hanukkah program and save the financially-troubled camp. It’s like Wet Hot American Summer, except snowy and cold and with fewer shofar dick fights. It doesn’t romanticize the Holocaust, it doesn’t offer up a powerless heroine who can’t truly offer informed consent, it doesn’t trivialize atrocities, and two cute Jews wind up together.
Related: Not Quite a Bodice-Rupper, But …
Marjorie Ingall is the author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.