Even though I’m on summer holidays, it’s been a busy two weeks, catching up on various appointments and cleaning and decluttering house. I never have time for spring cleaning, so it’s always put off to the summer. Nevertheless, as the city empties and days shorten, despite the hot weather, snatching a half hour on the deck with a book is my go-to relaxation time. Recently, I read two books, one distinctly unrelaxing but worthy and the other, most relaxing, the 4th in a Victorian murder-mystery series: Judy Batalion’s The Light of Days: Women Fighters of the Jewish Resistance and Jennifer Ashley’s Murder In the East End.
I read Batalion’s Light of Days because I assigned it to my senior AP students, among other titles you’ll hear about here. It’s hardly light summer fare, but an excellent account of Jewish women essential to the hard-fought resistance the Polish-Jewish community put up and not only within the confines of the Warsaw ghetto now-famous uprising. To my surprise, when I read the introduction, Batalion has a Montreal connection, having been born and raised here, as I was, which, when my parents arrived saw many Jewish businesses and shops in the area. (Batalion grew up in Côte-des-Neiges while I grew up in Mile End, Mordecai Richler territory). I remember trotting off to the local elementary school and stopping at Rifka’s to buy a 5-cent bag of chips, or a chocolate bar. Rifka was dour and silent, but as she handed me my change, I always noticed the number tattooed on her forearm; Mrs. Fuchs, who sold us our-then-blue-tunic school uniforms (soon to disappear with the coming of the sock-and-Birkenstock-wearing cool new principal, Mr. Herman), smiling, cheerful, welcoming, though riddled with arthritic contortions (I was mesmerized by her white orthopedic sandals, which she wore year-round, with white hose) as she too carried those mysterious numbers. I didn’t know what this meant, until our sixth grade teacher, Miss Ostroff, assigned The Diary of Ann Frank and we completed a unit on the history of the Holocaust.
Despite Miss Ostroff’s best intentions, there wasn’t anything in her fine instruction that taught me of what Batalion writes: brave Jewish women using every and any means to save people and fight Nazis. These women’s history and what they accomplished when their own lives were one second away from annihilation is remarkable and yet, Batalion’s account, harrowing in its details, inspiring in others, is a strangely constructed one. I thought her opening, where she recounts her family’s Holocaust history, and her conclusion, where she recounts what happened to the survivors, and her process and journey to gather her material, utterly fascinating and brilliant.
The accounts of the women were devoid of authorial intrusion. I think, and I may be wrong of course, Batalion wanted to write a straight chronicle of what they did, who they worked with, and how they accomplished remarkable feats of courage and strength (be warned, however, that the accounts of torture and death are difficult to read, though important to recount, obviously). Batalion leaves their stories without commentary, or analysis. In the end, it’s understandable, what could she offer by way of commentary: she has to let their witness stand because these aren’t her stories to tell. And yet, when her voice intrudes, as it does at the start and end, I found it compelling and wished there’d been more of it.
My second read was pleasant and escapist. The further adventures of Kat Holloway, Victorian cook, her downstairs friends, and mysterious friend-suitor, Daniel McAdam, always make for a good read. In this case, Kat tackles the board of a foundling hospital when children disappear, the appearance of a foster brother for Daniel, the study-in-contradictions vicar, Errol Fielding, and the artist, Miss Townsend. Kat’s voice is as sympathetic as ever and her intrepid adventures are, as in previous volumes, infused with a strong sense of justice.
Ashley is particularly good at secondary characters, though I love Kat and Daniel no less, and her creations of Bessie, the bad-tempered-heart-of-gold maid of all work at the foundling hospital, or the Reverend Errol Fielding, seemingly charmingly and handsomely pious hiding a steely anger and depths not as respectable as they appear. As with all the murder mystery series I follow, Ashley’s satisfies what I look for: strong characterization and atmosphere. Ashley also does great work when it comes to a good old-fashioned chase scene: one in particular as Kat is chased by thugs into Seven Dials and another, where Daniel, Kat, and Bessie spend hours rescuing prisoners from an attempted prison escape explosion. I follow way too many mystery series, but if you’re up for adding another one to your list, I would recommend Kat Holloway and friends.