NESFA Members' Reviews


by Dan Jacobson

Charles Scribner's Sons, ISBN 0-684-19660-3, 1992, 159pp, US$18

A book review by Evelyn C. Leeper

Copyright 1995 Evelyn C. Leeper

This is an alternate history, though not in the usual mold. And I am reviewing it as such, not as the (basically) mainstream literary novel that Jacobson was writing.

Kobus the Bookbinder lives in the town of Niedering in the land of Ashkenaz, in a Europe with a culture comparable to out Middle Ages (a nice broad swath, that). But it's not our Europe, as the name Ashkenaz should tell you. In this Europe, the God-Fearers, descendents of the ancient Yehudim, rule, and the Christer are blamed for all the misfortunes that befall the world. ("Christer" is both singular and plural, by the way.)

Now that Kobus's wife Rahella has died, his primary human contact is his housekeeper Elisabet. But Kobus is starting to have visions: two Christer children who keep appearing to him. Who they are and what their appearance means is what this book is about.

The alternate history aspect is emphasized in many places, talking about how "the Muselmi tried to put an army into the land of Pannonia," "Buddh in the land of Sinn," and so on. Jacobson has done his homework: the Egyptians are "Mitzrim," a Hebraicized derivation of Egypt's name for itself. And, true to alternate history tradition, Jacobson has his protagonist thinking about how his (different) world came about--in this case, by the God-Fearers winning over the Romaim instead of, say, staging a rebellion in the Holy Land. (In actual history, by the way, there were Romans who were considered "honorary Jews" and were called "God-Fearers.")

But it is in the very emphasis on the alternate history that Jacobson fails to convince. Kobus also thinks about what things might be like if drinking blood, devouring children, worshipping asses, scheming to seize power, and killing God were aimed, not at the Christer, but at the God-Fearers. God-Fearer children think it very funny to run up behind a Christer man, pull down his pants, and laugh at his uncircumcized penis. The Christer claim to be the elect, the chosen ones. The Christer are accused of witchcraft, poisoning wells, etc. And so on.

Now, in fairness, Jacobson is not trying to write an alternate history novel. He's trying to write a literary novel with emphasizes on each individual's responsibility to protect society from the evils within it. He is doing this by the sort of "walk a mile in my moccasins" approach that many trainers seem to like. In Jaconson's case, he turns around the situation in our world to one in which the Christians are subjected to precisely the same persecutions that the Jews were subjected to in our world. Now maybe it's my familiarity with alternate histories that makes me find this unimaginative and unconvincing, but I didn't think this aspect worked either. However, perhaps outside the science fiction field this technique will work better.

In summary, while this book has been lauded by mainstream critics, it has little to offer the alternate history fan.

%T      The God-Fearer
%A      Dan Jacobson
%C      New York
%D      1992
%I      Charles Scribner's Sons
%O      hardback, US$18
%G      ISBN 0-684-19660-3
%P      159pp

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