Jews were attacked in a series of pogroms and subjected to systematic oppression during the late nineteenth and early 20th century, scapegoated as the cause of political and economic upheaval. These pogroms and the long history of limiting Jewish movement in Eastern Europe foreshadowed the Holocaust. These awful conditions intensified as nationalist movements and state-sanctioned violence grew.
Textbooks can present us with facts, but literature allows us to feel the stories history hopes we will hear. In his absorbing and graceful debut novel, Horodno Burning, author Michael Freed-Thall brings us into the heart of a family forever transformed by persecution.
Inspired by his own family’s history, Freed-Thall presents the residents of Horodno, a real city inside Russia’s Pale of Settlement—the western border region of the Russian Empire where Jews were forced to live—as vibrant, complex characters. These are people navigating the personal politics of love, faith, and family under the looming shadow of a state that did little to prevent, and in some cases encouraged, suspicion and retribution against them.
Esther Leving and Bernard Garfinkle are teenagers when they meet, and love is far from inevitable. Esther, or Estes as she is known, captivated me with her keen intellect and fierce independence. She is the sun around which the story revolves, the anchoring point that gives this novel such depth and urgency.
The story of Estes and Bernard, their struggles as wife and husband, and as young parents during a time of massive cultural change is universal in its themes. Yet Horodno Burning is an invitation into a particular place and time, placing the reader in the heart of a community on the cusp of a great migration.
Freed-Thall’s writing is elegant, engaging, and tender. The historical detail is precise but rendered so naturally. Outstanding historical notes, a timeline, and maps offer context and ground the reader in time and place. Epic in scope, intimate in detail, Horodno Burning is historical fiction at its finest. What a tremendous book. I was so very moved and astonished by this story.
Horodno Burning by Michael Freed-Thall. Rootstock Publishing, September 2021.
Reviewer bio: Julie Christine Johnson (juliechristinejohnson.com) is the award-winning author of the novels The Crows of Beara and In Another Life. She lives on the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington state.
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