________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 3. . . .September 26, 2008



Leanne Lieberman.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2008,
245 pp., pbk., $12.95.
ISBN 978-1-55469-049-7.

Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.

Review by Joan Marshall.


Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



"Wait, go back to the part about, you know, the gay people."

We stop at the intersection at Lawrence Avenue.

"What about them?" Neshama jams her hands into her pockets.

"You really think they can't change?"

Neshama flaps her arms against her coat. "As much as you can stop being male or female. Imagine trying to be a guy. The Torah says gay people are wrong, and they're all sinners. That makes no sense. I say, go be gay and screw the Torah. Screw it all."

"All of it?"

"Yeah, the whole thing. I'm so sick of a mean God who insists on stupid stuff like only eating animals with split hooves. How does that make you a better person? I can't believe how many generations of crazy men believe all that crap. They only do it to oppress women. Garburetors are work? Who does the cooking in all those crazy ways on Shabbos? Why would you believe any of it?"

"I.I.I don't know. Because Shabbos is good," I say weakly.

"So rest on Shabbos, but don't follow stupid rules on how to rest. It's just a book, El."

"A book inspired by God," I whisper.

Neshama scoffs. "Can you even prove that God exists? Can you?"

When I pray, the words reverberate through my chest and esophagus, filling my head. They ground me, like kelp, thick and bulbous, rooted to the ocean floor, undulating in the waves. How to explain this to Neshama?


Fifteen-year-old Ellie Gold, daughter of orthodox Jews, can't wait to escape 1987 Toronto's stifling summer heat for the quiet stillness of a lake-front cabin rented by her beloved grandmother, easy-going, pragmatic Bubbie. Into her focus on nature and learning to swim properly whirls Lindsay, unsupervised, daring and beautiful. Ellie's desire for Lindsay horrifies her but, moth-like, she can't resist Lindsay's flame. Back in the city, Ellie's inner thoughts overlap the rhythm of orthodox Jewish life. She immerses herself in prayer, chants and even memorizes the periodic table to ban the memory of Lindsay, but desire seeps into her soul as she tries to reconcile her faith and her sexuality.

     In the year that follows, Ellie realizes that the delicious Lindsay cannot be faithful and that life will go on even if she is a lesbian. Ellie watches as her older sister Neshama gradually sheds their parents' ultra conservatism and makes plans to begin a business degree on the west coast. Ellie's parents struggle with the roles of men and women in orthodox Judaism but finally find a shul with which they can both be comfortable. Bubbie works quietly in the background to provide her granddaughters relief from their father's rigid approach to religion.

     Ellie is a memorable protagonist. Her desire for a science education spills out in everything she does, and like many mid-teenage girls, she gains comfort and peace through religious observance. Initially, when she accepts her sexual orientation and realizes that she has to part from fickle Lindsay, Ellie rejects her faith, but the singing and prayers of her mother's new shul centre her again. As she slips out to wrap Xmas presents at a mall and rages against ancient religious rules and the oppression of women, disobedient Neshama provides an effective foil for Ellie. Their Bubbie is the perfect grandmother: a woman who scoffs at pretension and offers unconditional love and support. Even Ellie's parents are portrayed with a gentle touch - the father who sincerely hopes that traditional religion will be the focus of everyone's lives and the mother who is truly searching for an ecstatic connection with God. The reader is immersed in the life of this ordinary family whose religion is woven into the fabric of their very being, and yet the details of this life are merely observed, never told.

      Both the serene lake setting that solidifies Ellie's fascination with biology and geology and the grimy, oppressive footprint of soulless downtown Toronto, not to mention the interior structure of Jewish observance, work together to build a protective cage which both support and confront Ellie as she begins to define her own life. The themes of this novel ask the questions every teen asks: How can I be a good person? Where can I find spirituality and peace? How am I a sexual person? How can I separate from and yet still love my parents? What do I want to do with my life? The serious nature of these themes is belied by Neshama's quick, witty, acerbic comments, the sisters' support for each other's disobedient thoughts and actions, and Ellie's fierce, erotic, lustful connection with Lindsay. Any teenager, particularly girls whose family life centres on religion of any sort will connect with Ellie's story.

Highly Recommended.

Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB, bookseller.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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