Aaron Hart has long been recognized as pre-Confederation Canada’s first Jewish immigrant. A commisary officer with the British troops at the time of Jeffrey Amherst’s 1760 capture of Montreal, Hart settles in Trois- Rivières, where he played a prominent role developing the town into a leading trade centre. To avoid intermarriage he returned to England and married his cousin, Dorthea Rivieres. By the time Hart died in 1800 he was reputed to be the wealthiest man in the British colonies.
Susan Glickman’s novel begins 22 years before Hart took up permanent residence in Trois-Rivières. Then belonging to New France, Quebec was a province where non-Catholic immigrants — or those who refused to convert — were forbidden entry. A young woman, disguised as a boy named Jacques Lafargue, arrives on a ship from France. An interrogation reveals she is Esther, the daughter of David Brandeau, a merchant Jew. Five years previous, Esther was sent by her parents to Amsterdam, but the boat on which she sailed was lost on the sandbanks of Bayonne. The rest is history, and also where Glickman’s whimsical plot takes flight, driven by Esther’s insatiable quest for freedom and adventure.
Glickman portrays a female hero who loathes having to conceal her Jewish faith. Both Esther and her father are descended from anusim, Jews who were forced to abandon their observance of Jewish rituals. After the Spanish Inquisition, some of these anusim fled Spain for France and subsequently succeeded in establishing themselves as merchants essential to the colonial shipping industry. Success came at a price — a life filled with restrictions, including higher taxes for similar incomes earned by French compatriots.
Esther, a lonely teenaged girl, morphs into a version of the legendary Scheherezade; she tells stories to avoid deportation. The reader is riveted by the depth of knowledge acquired during her early education in Bayonne and supplemented by her voracious reading in the libraries of people among whom she lives as a hidden Jewess. While telling her fantastical tales, she closes her eyes, seducing her listeners with the flow of her poetic language, and often an accompanying drink of chocolate whose ingredients are always miraculously within her grasp. All this changes when after one year in New France, she is forced to tell her real story. We learn the Ladino proverb La ija del Djudio, no keda sin kazar, which translates as “no daughter of a Jew remains unmarried.” Esther explains this means that all hidden Jewish daughters of anusim have a duty to go forth and multiply, which is the reason she was sent to Amsterdam at age 15 to an arranged marriage that she desperately did not desire.
Reminscent of the apochryphal Esther, who disguised herself as a non-Jew to marry King Ahasueras of Persia, fictional Esther Brandeau says, “I did not run away from my faith. I ran away from the limitations that faith subjected me to.” The numerous stories, imaginatively invented to fit each situation in which she finds herself, bring to mind the Talmudic tradition of midrash, tapping into legends and weaving nobler alternatives. In Esther’s quest, she discovers that although she may be the first young woman who came to New France disguised as a boy, she is certainly not the first of New France’s anusim.
Glickman is also an established poet, and earlier this year she released her sixth book of poetry, The Smooth Yarrow. Like Margaret Atwood, Glickman’s intelligence and superior narrative abilities have enabled her to transition skilfully from one genre to the other, and she is at the top of her game in both.
• Sharon Abron Drache’s third collection of short fiction, Barbara Klein Muskrat Then and Now, was just released by Inanna Publications.