Volume 21 Number 4
Matas has written a powerful YA novel based on an historical event unfamiliar to most Canadians. In 1827, in an attempt to assimilate and Christianize Polish Jews who had become "Russian" through conquest, Czar Nicholas I decreed that eighteen-year-old Jewish males could be drafted to serve in the Russian army for a period of twenty-five years, while twelve-year-old Jewish boys could be recruited into youth battalions in preparation for adult military service. Given quotas, local authorities in some Jewish communities resorted to khappers (captors) to kidnap boys/men when target numbers could not be reached by "legitimate" means.
The book's sworn enemies are two sixteen-year-old Jews from Odessa, Aaron Churchinsky, a well-to-do jeweller's son and yeshiva student about to be married to Miriam, and Zev Lobonsky, an apprentice butcher and seasonal khapper. Zev, jealous of Aaron's intelligence and reputation in the community, not to mention his relationship with Miriam, kidnaps Aaron and gives him over to the Russian army, where Aaron is subjected to numerous brutal psychological and physical abuses aimed at causing him to convert to Christianity. Prior to the kidnapping, Aaron had borne Zev no animosity, but, after the act, Aaron wants Zev dead. Ironically, Zev himself becomes an involuntary conscript, and the paths of the two boys cross twice more in the story. Ultimately, Aaron, with a pair of new friends, deserts and heroically makes his way to France.
Sworn Enemies not only tells a good story, but it is also a fine character study. By using Aaron and Zev as alternating narrators, Matas shows her audience that labels like "villain" and "hero" are not absolutes. A real discussion starter, the book raises numerous theological and moral questions as well as invites comparisons with happenings in the contemporary world. A must purchase!
Dave Jenkinson teaches young adult literature with the Faculty of Education, University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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