We have been lost to each other for so long. My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust. This is not your fault or mine. The chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed into the keeping of men, who had no way of knowing. That is why I became a footnote, my story a brief detour between the well-known history of my father and the celebrated chronicle of my brother.
-Anita Diamant, The Red Tent
To a large extent, women have been written out of history. Their lives and deeds have become lost to us. To uncover the buried histories of women, we must act as detectives, studying the clues left from ages lost.
At its best, historical fiction can write women back into history and challenge our misconceptions about women in the past. Anita Diamant’s novel, The Red Tent, became such an iconic classic because she turned our stereotyped image of women in the Old Testament on its head by allowing the biblical Dinah to tell her own story in her own voice.
Diamant’s worthy successor is Rebecca Kanner whose sweeping novel, Esther, has just been released in paperback.
Esther is a riveting portrait of the eponymous heroine of the biblical Book of Esther, itself a work of historical fiction, according to the Jewish Women’s Archive. Esther’s tale is the basis for the Jewish festival of Purim.
Kanner’s novel begins in 480 B.C.E. King Xerxes of Persia has banished Queen Vashti for her insubordination and sends his elite soldiers to scour the land for beautiful young virgins to fill his harem.
Many Western people associate the harem with the Muslim world, but both the harem and the veil predate the birth of Islam by at least a thousand years. Hellenistic Persia is ruthlessly patriarchal and yet this is a culture where the Goddess is still revered.
When Xerxes’s men abduct fourteen-year-old Hadassah, she elects to hide her Jewish identity by adopting the name Esther, after the Great Goddess Ishtar.
The biblical Esther is a girl as docile and obedient as she is beautiful, but Kanner’s Esther is made of much sterner stuff. After a grueling forced march to Xerxes’s palace, Esther is dragged into the harem where her ordeals have only just begun.
One of the most moving aspects of this novel is how Kanner reveals what it means to be a harem girl, aka forced sex slave. The author eschews the kind of lazy erotica a lesser author might have indulged in. Instead she shows us the cutthroat realities. The girls are literally drugged into submission with opium-laced wine, but they may never lower their guard. Girls and women are pitted against each other, all of them vying for power and survival, all of them subservient to the eunuchs who are their masters. Some women will stoop to disfiguring their rivals or to poisoning them to induce miscarriage. Should a woman or girl fall out of favor, she is literally thrown to the soldiers to be gang-raped.
Only a young woman with the foresight to win allies can endure in this world. With the aid of her mentor, the chief eunuch, Esther is summoned for her first night with the king. Drawing on both her beauty and her intelligence, she so beguiles him that he makes her his queen – which only makes her a bigger target for her rivals to bring down. And maintaining the fickle king’s interest is no easy thing.
Meanwhile Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, the king’s bookkeeper, becomes embroiled in a power struggle with Haman, the grand vizier and the king’s most powerful adviser. Haman promises to pour untold riches into the king’s treasury if Xerxes will allow him to kill not only Mordecai, but all the Jews in Persia. Mordecai begs Esther to intervene, saying that she is the only one who can save her people.
Yet Esther feels wholly unworthy of the task before her. She can’t even approach the king unsummoned, on pain of death. Nor does she dare reveal her Jewish identity. The king hasn’t even called on her in over a month, meaning that she has fallen out of favor.
When she loses all courage, her servant and friend, Ruti, gives her this counsel:
God chooses cowards to be brave, barren women to give birth to prophets, passionate men to be patient, and a man who stutters to command his people through the desert.
As flawed as we might be, each one of us is called to rise to our highest purpose. Kanner describes this so poignantly. Her Esther is never idealized or placed on a pedestal. This is no hagiography but the gripping and beautifully written story of a young woman’s journey from complete disempowerment to becoming the savior of her people.
Kanner shows Esther herself writing The Book of Esther to preserve her tale for posterity. As Mordecai tells her:
The tale men fashion is as important as what really happened. Until many years have passed. And then it becomes more important.
When even one woman tells her story and speaks her truth, a whole new picture emerges. Her-story.
Mary Sharratt’s book Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, won the 2013 Nautilus Gold Award, Better Books for a Better World. Her new novel, The Dark Lady’s Mask: A Novel of Shakespeare’s Muse, is drawn from the dramatic life of Aemilia Bassano Lanier, a woman of Jewish origin who became England’s first professional female poet. Visit Mary’s website.