Thursday, May 24, 2012

MG/YA Historical Fiction: Puppet by Eva Wiseman

Publisher: Tundra Books
Date: January 2009
Format: paperback
Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the publisher in return for an honest review.)
Pages: 243
Reading time: two days
*slight spoilers ahead*

From the paperback blurb: The year is 1882. A young servant girl named Esther disappears from a small Hungarian village. Several Jewish men from the village of Tisza Eszvar face the ‘blood libel’ — the centuries-old calumny that Jews murder Christian children for their blood. A fourteen-year-old Jewish boy named Morris Scharf becomes the star witness of corrupt authorities who coerce him into testifying against his fellow Jews, including his own father, at the trial. 

This powerful fictionalized account of one of the last blood libel trial in Europe is told through the eyes of Julie, a friend of the murdered Esther, and a servant at the jail where Morris is imprisoned. Julie is no stranger to suffering herself. An abused child, when her mother dies her alcoholic father separates her from her beloved baby sister. Julie and Morris, bound by the tragedy of the times, become unlikely allies. Although Puppet is a novel, it is based upon a real court case that took place in Hungary in 1883. In Hungary today, the name Morris Scharf has become synonymous with “traitor.”

My review: After reading Puppet and one of Wiseman's other historical novels, The Last Song, within a fairly close time period, I think I just have a love/hate relationship with the author's books. The hate part: there's often a lot of time that gets skipped that could instead have been fleshed out more. In Puppet, especially, there's a lot of jumping around without much development. The Jews are suddenly blamed for Esther's death (never mind that there's absolutely no sign of foul play at that point), Morris is suddenly completely indoctrinated by the Christian Hungarians, and Julie is, for some reason, traveling back to her hometown from the county capital to buy simple sewing supplies. There's occasional plot holes, lots of underdevelopment, and flat characterizations.

The love part: Wiseman takes horrific events from Jewish history and turns them into novels that teach younger readers (and some of us older ones, too) about things that are often neglected in history books. I think I'd run across a mention of the blood libel trials once in all of my other readings. It's a tough subject to read about; I was upset for most of the book at the injustices of the characters' lives, from the prejudices that scapegoat the Jews to the abuse and hard lives of Julie, her sister, and her friends. The last third of the book is absolutely gripping as the actual blood libel trial is covered. Readers are in suspense as we hear the (mostly coerced) lies told by some witnesses, the outrage of the falsely accused, and the internal conflicts of those torn between protecting themselves and doing what's right for others.

Final consensus: If I was a younger reader, I likely wouldn't notice all the things that I "hated" about the initial development of Puppet. Instead, I would have been thrilled because I was reading about a period of history previously unknown to me and felt righteously indignant over the injustices portrayed in the novel. In this regards, Puppet is perhaps better for a younger audience, though it is still an informative - and quick - read for the older set.

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