Sunday, November 12, 2017

On writing Christian Holocaust novels, a.k.a. Thank God for my worst reviews

I dialed the number, then hesitated before pushing “call.” I was calling a friend of a friend—in other words, a total stranger. I've always hated calling strangers since I was a child more mortally scared of embarrassment than of any actual danger. But this might help my work. My friend had referred me to this lady, saying she was Jewish and had very worthwhile constructive criticism for me about my first book, How Huge the Night. I pushed the button. I stammered my way through my inquiry about her feedback. Lay it on me, I didn't quite smoothly say.

“The French boy's story was a very fresh look at World War II for me,” the lady told me. “And I appreciated that your book wasn't trying to convert me. But it's your Jewish characters. They're a little… generic.”

Let me make this clear right now: she was 100% right--and being nice about it.

Honestly? Seven or eight years later, I kind of squirm thinking about it. Gustav and Nina, the Jewish brother and sister, in their very first scene have packed to flee Austria and are about to go out the door, and I have them pause to say the Shema together. Why?

Um. It's what Jews say, right?

I'm actually not positive it wasn't something they would do. It probably is in the realm of the possible; my kind critic didn't mention it as a ridiculous moment. What embarrasses me is that I didn't check. I didn't make even the slightest attempt to find out whether this was considered an appropriate prayer for the circumstance. Nope. I just blithely sailed on.

“I couldn't tell what kind of Jews any of them were, what their backgrounds would be.” Well of course you couldn't, lady. Judaism has only three major denominations, to my own religion's approximately one gazillion, and at the time I couldn't have told them to you. I'm just lucky she didn't ask me where I got off—I couldn't have told her!

Now some people may be nodding along to this and some people may be asking why I'm beating myself up for being a little vague in a novel. For the latter, I'll give the answer in three words.

Christian Holocaust fiction.

I didn't realize at the time that this was even an issue. It took me awhile to figure it out, even after my phone conversation. It snuck up on me slowly. Then a Christian romance between a Jewish woman and a concentration camp commandant made finalist for a major romance award, and it started sneaking up on me very fast.

There were rants all over the internet about it for awhile. (Why a concentration camp commandant? Well, it was supposed to be a retelling of Esther—he was King Xerxes, her love changed him, he liberated everybody. There were issues on all kinds of levels, all the way down—click on the links if you're interested.) People were furious. I was down that rabbit-hole for days, following link after link. Yes, there was some morbid fascination there, but I could tell there were things here I needed to know.

I hadn't made most of the mistakes that author made—casting a Nazi as the romantic lead, trying to spin a concentration camp commandant as “not a real Nazi,” etc. But I saw that I had made her first mistake, the one all the others came from. I had failed to realize I was rushing in where angels feared to tread.

My narrow escape took my breath away.

Allow me to link you to my two worst reviews.

My first reaction to both of these was just what you'd think. What the heck? The Tablet magazine one in particular confused me. The man's brief remarks about my book (one of many in a themed multi-book review) boiled down to “It's a Christian Holocaust novel for Christian teens and also it's Christian,” to which he affixed the verdict: creepy. Creepy?

The other review, when I finally stopped focusing on its couple of errors (nobody forces any Jews to go to church in the book, but I do understand how she might have gotten that impression,) actually put the heart of the issue really well. There was the “generic” quality—my Jewish characters sounded, she said, like “Christians who spoke a different language”—there was the lack of any genuinely researched Jewish worship or practice (there were reasons, but they weren't good reasons)—and finally there was the worst part. The reviewer accused me of “using the background setting of a people being persecuted, tortured, and killed for their religion to glorify another religion”—i.e. Christianity.

I certainly didn't intend to do that. I didn't set out to use my Jewish characters only to glorify the faith of my Christian ones. But it's true that I understood my Christian characters' backgrounds far more than those of my Jewish characters, and that I was not uncomfortable enough with that to fix it. Intentions are not the only thing.

How much I did or didn't exploit my Jewish characters, I will leave it to each person who reads How Huge the Night to decide. I know I didn't do it nearly as much as others have, I know I didn't do it enough to spark a viral series of internet rants. But let me put it this way: I'm no longer saying What the heck? I hear what these people are saying now. I don't think that writing a Christian Holocaust novel is inherently, automatically wrong or creepy (or I would have stopped) but I don't think the Tablet reviewer was a lunatic, either. I understand now why he could make that judgment without taking the time (or the wordcount) to back it up, and expect his reader to agree.

I understand two things I should never have gone into this series without understanding. My two worst reviews started to teach them to me. Someone else's thirty worst reviews hammered them home.

The first was simply what the Holocaust still means to some people alive today. If you click one link in this post, click this one. Fair warning, it's a rant. There's no language, though. Just raw, intensely personal emotion and truth. The part I have never forgotten is the writer's description of visiting the nursing home week after week as an eleven-year-old, hearing people's stories, seeing the faded numbers on their arms, running her shaking arm up and down an old lady's back as she sobbed and relived the terror of thinking she was going to die in a camp. Reading that, and other posts—but mostly that—I heard the voice of reality whispering in my ear what I'll repeat to any author who's treading where I'm still treading today: this is not a story, okay? World War II is not your fiction background—or playground—it's not “instant drama, just add water.” Write with respect for the real people it happened to, or go somewhere else and make your own drama.

For some of us, it's a terrible historical event; for others, it's the reason why their parents don't have any older relatives. Once I started interacting with Jews online about this, one of them made the simple statement, in a discussion of the culture of Jewish communities in the mid-20th century, that she didn't know much about her mother's side of the family because “none of them made it out.”

None of them made it out.

I knew the Holocaust was terrible, right? But there's knowing and there's knowing.

Here's another story one of the same people told me. We were discussing the experience of Jewish children hidden during the Holocaust, and what they remembered. The (true) story is this: there was a rabbi who was tasked, after WWII ended, with finding Jewish children who had been hidden in monasteries during the Holocaust. Why finding? Well, sometimes the monasteries didn't want to give them back—in fact, some denied having any Jewish children there. To verify, he would call out the Shema—and any Jewish children who were there would run to him, their deepest memories stirred by the words.

Why didn't the monasteries want to give them back? They wanted to raise them as Christians.

I was shocked by this story. But I also felt something else, something—shall we say creepy? I felt recognition.

I'm a Christian. So I understood why they wanted that.

But hearing it from a Jewish person, I also understood how she would feel about it. How the children's relatives would feel about it. How anyone Jewish would feel about it.

That was the second thing I learned.

Anti-Semitic medieval art
We American Protestants, we don't feel that the Middle Ages has anything to do with us. There's the early church, the Reformation, the Great Awakening, and then there's all that Catholic stuff, which is not our stuff. But Catholics were simply Christians, the only Christians there were, when the Spanish Inquisition coerced tens of thousands of Jews into converting. Make no mistake: they remember. The old, cold history of medieval Christian Europe making it clear to the Jews they were really not very welcome—but they could be! If they converted! (or maybe not depending on the country…)—is one the Jews have not forgotten, even if we have. The slanders about poisoned wells, the murders, the pogroms, they haven't forgotten those either. They don't consider the Holocaust to be an inexplicable exception. Simply the climax of a terrible story. I haven't heard many of them online blaming Christians for the Holocaust. It's generous of them, or perhaps polite. But we should be the first to admit, at the very least, that it happened on our watch. On our turf. That if every Christian had risen up, it would not remotely have been possible.

And then we have the good Christians. The ones who hid and rescued Jews. Some of whom also went ahead and used the power they'd been given over Jewish children—given, remember, indirectly but most surely by the Nazis—to obtain conversions that stank of coercion. The good ones.

So yeah. Christian Holocaust fiction.

I had no idea what I was getting into.

Now at least I've got the first clue. Thank God.

Now, none of this made me want to stop writing the “Night” series. No way.
Because if there's anything that the story of Le Chambon has to say to all of what I've written above, it's that it is not inevitable. Le Chambon, and what happened there during the war, stands as a proof that it doesn't have to be this way, that all the bone-bleak history between Christians and Jews, the awful dynamics, the excellent reasons for people's suspicion about what I do, were not inevitable then and they are not inevitable now—that we can obey our God much better than that, and we must.

Children arriving in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon
The people of Le Chambon did not use the people they rescued to prove their own virtue—they considered their own virtue little more than common decency, what “anybody would do.” They did not use their position of power, with desperate, hunted refugees and children utterly dependent on them for survival, to put pressure on them to listen to the message of Christianity. They respected them too much for that. They quite simply acted toward them according to both the Torah and the Gospels: Do to others what you would have them do to you. Love your neighbor as yourself. They lived the kingdom of God in their here and now—not the supremacy of Christianity, but the kingdom of God.

I knew in my bones that was still the story I wanted to tell—more than ever. But I wanted to do it right this time.

But this is far too long already… so, Part II next week.


But—I have a query for you all. Part of the end of the process by which I hope to be doing it right: consulting Jewish sensitivity readers. I still need one or two more. If you are Jewish, willing to read my book, and able to advise on whether I've rendered the experience of a devout young Jewish woman, and the Jewish experience in my book in general, accurately and respectfully, I would be very grateful and glad to reciprocate with any writing feedback or editing work you might need. You can contact me at


  1. Thanks, Heather. This is salutary for me, as I start on my next novel about persecuted Huguenots in France after 1685 (my ancestors!). Do I understand them, feel what they felt? Do I understand the fervent Catholic perpetrators, feel what they felt?

    1. I'm glad!

      Yes, exactly. You have to become the character as much as you can, and that takes both research and empathy. I also tried to understand my Nazi villain, for realism. It was a pretty disturbing process...