First published in Hebrew in Israel as I, Gittel by 62 Publishing House in 2014. English language translation by Aloma Halter published in America by AmazonCrossing on the 2nd of May 2017.
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How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Inspired by the evocative and intimate true story of Gittel, a remarkable woman whose faith led her to make an unthinkable sacrifice.
The daughter of a Torah scholar in eighteenth-century Ukraine, Gittel has always accepted her place in a family steeped in religion. Married at age twelve to a cold and reclusive rabbi, the young bride gives birth to two sons destined to follow their father’s path. Finding very little comfort in family life, Gittel shares her dreams, visions, and a close spiritual understanding with her only confidant: her father-in-law, the Maggid of Mezeritch.
When Gittel loses those close to her one by one, she decides to leave her old life behind, including her sons, to set out on a lonesome and perilous journey to Jerusalem. Will she sacrifice everything in pursuit of the dream of her youth?
For such a short novella (just over a hundred pages), Trail Of Miracles is a surprisingly long read. This is a book to consider and to linger over rather than a fast-paced page-turner. The tale was inspired by a true story and it does feel rooted in truth, but with frequent diversions into dreams and matters of faith so I was often unsure how much of what I reading was Gittel's actual story and how much was stories that she told. Perhaps this is meant to signify faith in religious belief which is the overriding theme of Trail Of Miracles. Gittel's life - and her story - is steeped in the Jewish faith and I am sure I would have got even more out of this book had I known more of the biblical tales and people that are referenced. While my lack of cultural insight didn't negatively impact on my overall understanding, I am sure many nuances passed me by.
As a portrayal of aspects of Jewish life historically, this is a beautiful and eye-opening read. The gender chauvinism is shocking to my modern Western sensibilities as are the greedy actions of Gittel's family in effectively selling her to a man they have never met. I was often saddened and angry on her behalf. From a historical fiction perspective I didn't get a particularly strong sense of the eighteenth century or of the Ukraine as a setting. Instead I would say that Trail Of Miracles felt timeless in the sense that its events could have happened within similar communities throughout many eras. I am not sure whether I would consider this a complaint though. Certainly, having partly chosen to read the book in order to discover Ukranian history, I was disappointed in that, but I only really noticed the lack of information in hindsight when thinking back over what I had read in order to compose this review. Herzfeld's scenes are evocatively detailed and the characters strong in an almost fairytale sense. A thoughtful, magical and rewarding novella.
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Books by Smadar Herzfeld / Historical fiction / Books from Israel