Friday, October 25, 2019

Untold Stories

Literary inspiration comes from many places. As Talia Carner explains in my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction,  part of the inspiration for her most recent novel, The Third Daughter, came from a collection of short stories written by the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. These stories, collectively called Tevye and His Daughters or Tevye the Dairyman, were once the inspiration for the well-known Broadway musical and Hollywood film Fiddler on the Roof.

In the musical, Tevye has five daughters, three of whom seem determined to defy his plans for them. One marries a poor man despite her father’s agreement to contract her to a well-off butcher. A second talks Tevye into accepting her marriage to a Jewish revolutionary, who then ends up in Siberia as a result of his political activities against the tsarist system. A third runs off with a Russian who has won her heart after Tevye refuses to accept her wedding to a gentile.

But what happened to the other two girls? That was the question that started Talia Carner on her journey toward the novel that became The Third Daughter. As tends to happen in fiction, the story changed along the way. The second and third daughters fused into one, and the fifth daughter disappeared altogether, leaving three girls. The Ukrainian pogrom that ends Fiddler on the Roof opens The Third Daughter, as the dairyman and his wife and their one remaining daughter struggle to find a safe place despite having lost most of their household goods. Names are changed, as are details, but the essence of the original story remains—at least in the first chapter or two.

The most striking innovation is Carner’s incorporation of another of Sholem Aleichem’s stories, “The Man from Buenos Aires,” a trader of unspecified goods whose business she matches to the history of Zwi Migdal, a little-known trafficking organization that operated entirely within the law in Argentina from 1870 to 1939. In doing so, she takes a beloved production and turns it into a searing indictment of the brutality inflicted on Jews within the Russian Empire and its consequences, including for women victimized by those willing to profit from their misfortune.

So listen to the interview. Read the Q&A Talia produced for my blog last month. But most of all, read the book. I guarantee you won’t be able to put it down.

As ever, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.  

As revealed by the title of Talia Carner’s latest novel, The Third Daughter (William Morrow, 2019), her heroine, Batya, has two older sisters. Both ran off with men their parents could not tolerate, placing a heavy burden on Batya to compensate for her sisters’ failings by making her parents happy.

When her family is forced to flee its home in a Ukrainian village to escape a pogrom, losing most of its goods, Batya helps out by taking a job at a local tavern. 

There she meets Yitzik Moskowitz, a smooth-talking, well-respected, and obviously well-off visitor who soon convinces Batya’s father to give his third daughter’s hand in marriage. Moskowitz promises to wait two years before making Batya his wife, but he insists she travel with him now, because who knows when he will return to Ukraine?

Although only fourteen, Batya agrees to accompany her future husband on his journey. But after one night on the road, she discovers that what the “Man from Buenos Aires” wants from her has nothing to do with marriage. After a hideous journey across the Atlantic, Batya ends up in an Argentinean brothel, enslaved to the legal trafficking organization Zwi Migdal. For a while, she longs for death. But strong and resilient, she learns to adapt and even finds solace in unexpected places.

Drawing on a series of stories by Sholem Aleichem, some of which became the basis for the popular musical Fiddler on the Roof, this fifth novel by a committed social activist is not always an easy read. But it is an essential and compelling read, not least because despite being set in the late nineteenth century its story is as contemporary as yesterday’s headlines.

Image: Marc Chagall, The Fiddler (1912–13), public domain via Wikimedia Commons. This series of paintings by Chagall inspired the sets of the original Fiddler on the Roof.

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