Wednesday, December 12, 2007

So Bee It

Bee Season
by Myla Goldberg

Initially, I was attracted to this book because I find spelling bees really interesting. E. and I love the movies Akeelah and the Bee and Spellbound. Whenever we catch it, we watch the National Spelling Bee and are transfixed by it. I'm a good speller myself, but they use such random words that I would be knocked out in Round 1, I have no doubt. At first glance this is a book about a child who does well in spelling bees, but as it unfolds . . .no, it is about Jewish mysticism . . .no, it is about this sad family who shares a home but are pretty much strangers to each other . . .no, it is about spiritual hunger and a longing for a sense of wholeness and communion with the divine. Actually it is about all these things, and as we read on it turns out that spelling is an auxiliary part of the narrative, a way to expose the searching and emptiness of all the primary characters in the book.

The utter isolation of the Naumann family is haunting. It is as if they are a universe unto themselves, but they are also alienated from each other. The result is four terribly isolated and lonely people. The parents, Saul and Miriam, are more like roommates than spouses. The children, Aaron and Eliza, are close as kids but drift apart as they become adolescents. Aaron is the stereotypical geeky kid who gets bullied and is at the bottom of the social pecking order. However, he gets some affirmation from his father because he is smart and planning to be a rabbi. Eliza is ignored by both her parents until she shows herself to be a spelling prodigy. Once she wins the state spelling bee, Saul puts everything aside to help her study for the national bee. At first Eliza loves the attention from him, but soon starts to feel suffocated by his expectations.

The truly fascinating character is Miriam, the mother. She is almost a complete non-entity as a mom - very unengaged with her kids, not at all in tune with who they are and what their needs might be. As the story moves, we figure out that she is leading a whole double life - she is mentally ill but has managed to hide that fact from her husband of nearly two decades. One of her symptoms is kleptomania, and the reader's anxiety builds as it becomes more clear that she is going to get caught stealing and the whole house of cards that is their family life is going to come tumbling down.

Partly because he is angry with his father for diverting his attention to Eliza, and partly because he craves a sense of belonging somewhere, Aaron puts aside his Jewish faith and joins a community of Hare Krishnas. He takes up the ancient Buddhist practice of chanting in order to clear his mind and make himself conscious of God. Oddly, the process is not unlike the Jewish Kabbalah chants that Saul teaches Eliza because he believes that the cleared out mind will help her spelling. It becomes clear, though, that spelling is not his only motivation. He has hopes that Eliza will have spiritual experiences that after a lifetime of Judaism and a career as a cantor have eluded him.

This is a good story, but the desperation of all the characters is sad. Only in the end, after Eliza has finally had a mystical experience (and it is more frightening than positive), does she claim her own freedom to develop as she chooses and not as her father would direct her. Aaron and Miriam are still essentially in crisis, and misguided Saul cannot figure out what to do next. The loose ends are not neatly tied up in the end, but then they seldom are in real life either. Makes me want to make sure I pay a lot of attention to my kids.

This is worth reading, primarily because Goldberg does a good job of showing the effect that loneliness has on children and adolescents, and the lengths to which people will go to feel a sense of spiritual fulfillment.

Reverent Reader


At 12/18/07, 8:40 AM , Blogger ssf said...

I hadn't realized that you guys were such spelling bee fans. You should definitely try to see the 29th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee on Broadway before it leaves (sometime soon I think). It is hysterical!


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