In case you missed it, here are the related posts:
- Just because you CAN….
- Side by Side: The Book of Esther and For Such a Time
- Deconstructing For Such a Time: Another Angry Book Nerd Manifesto
- Deconstructing For Such a Time, Part 2: Allegory, Schmallegory
- Deconstructing For Such a Time, Part 3: The Fallacy of the Magic Bible
Me to myself yesterday:
There’s a lot of confusion about what exactly does and doesn’t occur in That Book. I think it would be worthwhile to lay out the critical plot points and character backstories.
If you’re looking for smart people saying smart things, go here:
Otherwise, GFTO, I’m going in.
The main characters
Stella Muller/Hadassah Benjamin. Our heroine. She’s Jewish, but had false papers claiming she’s Aryan. It’s easy to believe because thanks to her Dutch grandmother, she has hair the color of gold and eyes as blue as the Judean sky. Hadassah is her Hebrew name and Stella is her Aryan alter ago; this mirrors the holy texts, except the ancient Hadassah becomes Esther when she’s made Queen of Persia. In the book, she’s known as Stella until she proclaims her Jewishness.
Colonel Aric von Schmidt. Our hero. He’s the SS officer newly assigned the command of Theresienstadt. But he’s not really SS – he was invalided out of the Wehrmacht (the field army) after ten years and many battles. He calls his new SS colleagues “mangy curs” and “uniformed thugs” which proves that he’s not a True Nazi. Aric is Austrian; his father was a baron and a self-described “gentleman farmer.” His name is spelled with an “A” because he’s the modernized version of Ahasuerus, King of Persia. I have no idea how to pronounce “Ahasuerus.” It keeps coming out as “Asuharious.”
Uncle Morty, full name Mordecai Benjamin. He’s Stella’s uncle, but has raised her as a daughter after she was orphaned. Morty is the conscience on Stella’s shoulder, whispering to her to keep the faith.
Captain Hermann. He’s second in command at the camp, a career SS man, and a brutal bully. He’s kinda pissy that he didn’t get promoted to commandant. Hermann = Haman, chief toady to the Persian king and Mordecai’s archenemy.
Hardly any snark! Except for that one bit about the True Nazis. If you can’t handle that, GTFO because there’s more.
Stella wakes up in a strange room and meets Colonel Aric. We learn she was at Dachau, but she was there by mistake and he’s the kind of officer that doesn’t tolerate mistakes made against women with blond hair and blue eyes. Stella has exactly the secretarial skills he needs, because of course she does, so he’s taking her with him to his new post as commandant of Theresienstadt.
“…as easily as I netted you from that cesspool Dachau, I can toss you back.”
Stella’s blond hair is shorn, so as they’re getting in the SS car to head out to Czechoslovakia, Aric reaches into his pocket and pulls out a red wig.
When they arrive at the camp, they meet Captain Hermann. Just picture Hogan’s Heroes and you’ll have a good mental picture of Hermann the Horrible.
Stella is to live at Aric’s house outside the walls of the ghetto. She meets Joseph and Helen, the palace eunuchs. Oh, wait, sorry – Joseph the one-eared Jewish houseboy and Helen the mute Catholic housekeeper.
At dinner, Stella ponders Aric’s handsomeness and is forced to eat pork.
When she returns to her room, the Magic Bible appears! She knows about the Christian Bible from her friend Marta. The Bible magically falls open to Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Because of course it does.
We meet Uncle Morty. Uncle Morty has foreseen that Stella will be their salvation. Uncle Morty is sure the new commandant is a mensch because he’s offered table scraps to the Jews who collect his firewood.
Stella’s first job as secretary is to type a list of prisoners to be transported to Auschwitz. Aric’s gentle tone affects her like an unwanted caress as she’s holding a file folder labeled “FINAL SOLUTION.” [ETA: see comment below] She’s haunted by his abject misery and has pangs. Yes, those pronoun placements are correct.
Uncle Morty has ginormous feet. This is important to the story.
A sudden calm settled over him. The prophecy would be fulfilled. She would be their salvation.
That was a weird transition because the prophecy doesn’t have anything to do with Morty’s ginormous feet. Stella/Hadassah will be their salvation. Have I mentioned this yet? The word “salvation” is used 21 times. Variations of the word “saved” appear 97 times.
Stella likes to awaken and look out the window at the grayish dawn. This happens at the beginning of nearly every chapter, so it must be important. I think it might be like a metaphor or something.
Klink Aric is not a monster because all the transports to Auschwitz were before his tenure, and because he saved houseboy Joseph from Hermann the Horrible. This gives Stella unsettling warmth. She recalls Kristellnacht while clutching the Magic Bible in her lap and she discusses Heaven with Joseph because talking about Heaven while clutching a Bible is totally something two Jews in a concentration camp would do.
She’d already completed her first week of work and so far had managed to keep their relationship on a strictly professional plane. The colonel, however, seemed to have other plans, laying siege to her emotional armor with battlefield vengeance.
Emphasis mine. Hang in there, tiger, we have a long way to go. I actually read the damn book. Twice.
Colonal Aric listens to Verdi. This proves he is not a Real Nazi because Real Nazis only listen to Wagner (duh) or polka bands or tenors in lederhosen drunkenly singing “Deutschland Uber Alles” in biergartens during Oktoberfest (ideally, the latter two at the same time because the contrast of tuba and tenor is so ironic and Nazis love irony). Aric’s voice sweeps over Stella like Verdi’s dulcet notes. Tubas in polka bands aren’t very dulcet, so it’s a good thing he likes classical music. Tenors are sometimes dulcet, but Wagner is never dulcet, which really isn’t an insult because Wagnerian Sturm und Drang comes in handy once in a while when you need a soundtrack for goose-stepping jackboots or Bugs Bunny cartoons.
Where were we? Ah, yes. Aric has broad shoulders. Have I mentioned this before?
Colonel Aric is giving a supper party because…he needs to give a supper party. The other officers bring prostitutes to the party. We know they are whores because (*gasp* brace yourselves) they wear makeup.
Colonel Aric makes snotty comments about the SS at his dinner party populated by the SS. Hermann the Horrible forces Stella to dance with him. This is problematic because Hermann has onion breath. Also, he is a very bad dancer.
Colonel Aric smells like pine and woodsmoke. Sometimes also coffee; occasionally a bit spicy. But never musky, that would just be gross.
Stella spies houseboy Joseph trying to steal food; at the exact same time Hermann accuses her of being a Jew. She creates a distraction for both by planting a kiss on the oily bohunk captain. Colonel Aric (“call me Aric”) witnesses this and gets the Wrong Idea. Aric is Not Pleased. But he smells good.
The word “smell” occurs 32 times. We haven’t even gotten around to the stenches yet.
Magic Bible Time!
She sat on the edge of the bed and held the book in her lap, letting it fall open to a random page: Solomon’s Song of Songs. “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—for your love is more delightful than wine.”
Stella quickly closed the book and tucked it back inside the drawer. With a furtive movement, she pressed a finger to her lips and tried to imagine how his kiss might have felt, allowing herself a candid glimpse into her own traitorous feelings.
God wants them to kiss! Yay!
Stella’s eyes are blue. Blue like Austria. Don’t ask. This is important. Aric drinks chilled Pouilly-Fouisse. This is not important. He frets that gentle-hearted (Gentile-hearted? hahahaha) Stella will hate him for the Final Solution even though it’s totally Not His Fault.
Aric takes Stella to the Ghetto Café, where he orders the camp orchestra to play the Blue Danube Waltz. They waltz, because the Blue Danube was written by an Austrian and Aric is Austrian and that’s what Austrians do.
Aric must kiss Stella “to protect her.” Don’t ask why. Probably because of God.
Horrible Hermann arrives and wants to dance with Stella.
Well, she wasn’t a meaty bone to be fought over by two hungry dogs!
Esther’s request for the orchestra is a Yiddish lament about a Polish man mourning his dead wife. This proves to us, the readers, that Stella is a Real Jew and the author totally did lots and lots of research.
The next day, Aric is brooding about The Kiss. There was yearning involved. He shows Stella his medals for blood sacrifices to the Reich and tells her he knows more about what’s at stake in the war than she does. Stella envisions Aric as a grumpy lion, and she’ll be the one to pull the thorn from his paw.
He seemed as lost in his own tempest of emotions as she was, as if his silent anguish touched hers. She fled from his office, and it occurred to her that perhaps Aric von Schmidt suffered even more than she did. At least Stella knew the name of her demons.
Did you catch that? His sufferings are way worse than hers. They both agree on this. I, however, am quite wary of this. I need to see him suffer. I need to see him suffer A LOT.
Aric does a camp inspection and finds the prisoners’ potato soup is watery. He forces a smarmy lieutenant to take a bite. The lieutenant barfs it right back up. All this occurs in front of all the prisoners and their captors because officers shaming guards in front of prisoners and subordinates is totally a thing that happens in the military and in prisons. This is a sign that Stella will be their salvation. I think. I’m getting a little bleary-eyed here.
Stella must type another list for Auschwitz. This makes Aric a monster again. She decides to omit 160 names from the list because no one will ever notice. She confronts Aric about the list; he shrugs it off because Jews are nothing but a nuisance, a waste of time and resources. But he’s not a monster because he treats them better than most.
Whatever reasons had brought him to be in this place, in this time, he had no more choice in the matter of conscience than she did. And, it seemed, less hope of any deliverance.
Hermann the Horrible meets with the Barfing Lieutenant and another guy whose purpose is only to match him up with a name in the Bible and they plan an assassination plot, which Morty overhears. Morty sets a fire to create a distraction (for..something) and jumps out the window, where his ginormous shoes leave ginormous shoeprints in the snow. See? I told you they were important.
Stella awakens to the grayish dawn. Again. Aric has been staring at her while she sleeps.
Aric says “Hey! Let’s play hooky and make a snowman!” Stella says “Yay!” and finds a perfectly-fitting and totes cute pair of ski pants in the SS Surplus Closet. They hold hands over hot oatmeal. Oatmeal is Stella’s favorite breakfast; I’m guessing she got a taste for it what with all the gruel at Dachau. The ski pants and the oatmeal make Stella feel – WAIT FOR IT – like a queen. A QUEEN. You know, like Queen Esther? That is some good allegorying right there.
Aric reveals that in his boyhood, he rode his pony through the forests of Austria. He tells Stella the Fable of the Magic River.
…after the devils that ruled the place tried to terrify him and beat him to death, the maiden came and washed his wounds with water from the Magical River.
That sounds a lot like a baptism. I wonder if that was intentional.
Aric reveals his backstory as a naïve recruit in Hitler Youth. This makes his green eyes go cloudy and that makes Stella all swoony and they kiss. Their kiss is interrupted by a train whistle. This reminds Stella that Aric is still a Nazi so she’s mad at him again.
Morty sends Stella a note with the details of the assassination plot and effusions about Aric and the Barfing Lieutenant. This means Aric is a good guy again – yay! Stella tells Aric she dreamed about him being killed by his own staff. They kiss again and she tastes his sorrow.
Guess what? We’re not even halfway done yet. It gets worse. Go ahead and take a cookie break if you need one.
Aric and Stella bond over conversation about the shooting pits at Dachau vs being a target of by Russian snipers. Enticing depths of passion ensue. Only mentally, of course, because this is an inspie and God only likes “clean” romance because sex is dirty.
Magic Bible Time!
Stella decides to let the assassination plot unfold because she can’t divulge her sources.
The assassination attempt erupts in the middle of the night. Stella swoops in “like an avenging angel in white.” She is held at fire-poker-point. This makes Aric cranky because that SS dog is defiling her innocent flesh. Because, you know, being dragged into the shooting pit at Dachau isn’t nearly as bad as being “defiled.”
There’s a fistfight (because of course there is) and Aric goes down with his adversary. Or maybe adversaries, it’s kind of hard to tell. Stella rushes to his side and they have a nice long smooch. Aric arises like Lazarus (YES REALLY) from the heap of bodies. This means that they were kissing punishingly while he was tangled in dead bodies. It’s more than just affection, you guys. It’s TWU WUV.
Stella will be their salvation.
Aric orders the traitorous assassins’ bodies to be hung from the gallows inside the ghetto for two days, and all SS soldiers are required to march past twice a day. The purpose of this scene is to remind us we’re reading a Bible allegory because what happens in a Persian palace can totally happen in a Nazi concentration camp.
Stella will be their salvation.
Hermann’s POV. Hermann really hates Jews, but he has reasons.
Stella will be their salvation.
It’s dress rehearsal day for the Red Cross visit. A random porcine SS general shows up to ramp up the general SS swinishness because they’re the True Nazis. Aric on the other hand, resembles Charlemagne. As in, you know, the HOLY ROMAN EMPEROR.
Stella is still mad at Aric despite his Charlemagnity. (Damn. That one was gooood.) But wait – he did something not Nazi-ish so he’s a good guy again! So of course they kiss.
…once more Stella sensed the sadness and desperation beneath his passion. She slid her hands around his neck and kissed him back. She wanted him to understand how much he’d come to mean to her: dangerous, irrevocable feelings that touched her heart with the purity and wonder of a first snow.
Excuse me a moment. Things are getting dangerous and irrevocable here, and not in a good way.
Stella visits Aric’s sidekick who was injured in the assassination attempt. She finds a volume of Tennyson poems — a book banned by the Nazis. This proves (again) that Aric is not a True Nazi because True Nazis only read Mein Kampf and the menus at biergartens.
Aric frets that Final Solution = Losing Stella.
The porcine general puts the moves on Stella. This makes Aric…Not Pleased…so he offers to take the general out for a beer. Before they head to the biergarten (note the author’s totally true use of actual German words; there’s a glossary in case you get confused), Stella again refuses to become Aric’s mistress so of course he says “Marry me, then.” He calls her “my dove.” There’s a LOT of animal metaphors in this book. The “dove” metaphor is a really subliminal Christian thing you’re not supposed to consciously notice but instead internalize until you feel like kissing a Nazi. If you don’t read inspies, you probably think this sort of thing happens a lot. It doesn’t because usually we’re just hit over the head with Bible verses.
Oh, wait. Never mind.
Stella saves Morty from the “nearly dead” category of the Auschwitz list with her Mad Makeup Skillz. She was just kidding about the “only whores wear makeup” bit earlier because she is such an expert that even Hermann the Horrible is impressed with Morty’s makeover.
Hermann’s hatred burns Uncle Morty’s nostrils. Nostrils are very important in this story. Because of all the smells. And odors. And aromas. You’ll just have to wait a bit longer for the stenches, but there might be a bit of wafting of sorts coming up soon if you like that sort of thing.
Stella will be their salvation. Stella has grown to hate the word “salvation.” So say we all.
Aric orders Stella to wear her blue dress and pearls for their wedding because she must “shine like a beacon on a mountain.” Not BACON, beacon. Geez, you losers, pay attention here.
Hermann learns that names are missing off the death train roll call. This is discovered through an extensive forensic administration investigation that reveals Stella skipped number 28 when she typed the list. It’s too bad, because I thought a ruse that brilliant would totally work because Nazis are just that stupid.
Hermann tattles to Colonel Aric. Colonel Aric confronts Stella by dragging her out of the shower. She is fully dressed in the shower. No lie.
The real Esther:
(7:3) Then Esther the queen answered and said, If I have found favour in thy sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request: (7:4) For we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to perish.
The fictional Esther:
“Hadassah. Is that Jewish enough for you?”
He accuses her of slutting herself out for freedom.
“Because of what you’ve done, I must arrest you.”
“I’m not afraid.”
“You should be.”
Stella leaks a few tears, and Aric’s heart crumbles because he’s not a True Nazi and therefore he has an actual heart.
“You’re not a monster, Aric.” Her voice came to him soft and steady. “Or a martyr, either. You’re just a man, nothing more.”
I am so going to Hell for this. But..God gave us Jim Henson, which means God has a sense of humor. Snark totally counts as humor. It says so in the Bible. Or the dictionary. Or at least Urban Dictionary.
Hermann’s adrenaline is pumpin’, yo! He arrests Aric and puts him under house arrest in an office because that’s totally protocol when you find out Herr Kommandant has the hots for a Jewess.
Meanwhile, Stella is now Hermann’s secretary because he really wants to, um, bed her. That was a euphemism. He forces her to type yet another Auschwitz list. When she takes the cover off the typewriter, take a wild guess what’s there! Go ahead, guess. You’ll never guess.
The book had fallen open to a page, marked by the photograph of Aric…
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son . . .”
Now we get Helen the Mute Catholic Housekeeper’s POV. This is unfortunate because she should have been the narrator all along because Helen is a BADASS. She can’t speak because a Commie cut her throat with a broken bottle in 1919. Commies are almost as bad as Nazis, but not quite. She finds it hard to forgive them.
Helen says a prayer for what she is about to do.
Helen’s sin is drugging Aric’s guards by doping their dinners with morphine.
Aric is now their deliverance. I think Stella is still their salvation because there was no change of command ceremony – it’s apparently like a shared power co-directorship separate-but-equal kind of thing.
Hermann gleefully accepts command of the camp and celebrates with a trip to the brothel. Somewhere in between there, we get two whole paragraphs describing the opulence of a Prague hotel.
Stella is again attacked by another New Testament verse from the Magic Bible. A friend of her uncle’s catches her clutching the Bible.
“It’s not suitable—”
“Does it matter now?”
Well, yes. Yes, it does.
Aric casts an indomitable shadow. Probably because of his broad shoulders. He and Morty have A Plan.
“What plan?” she asked.
Morty beamed. “Salvation, of course.”
“What are you planning to do?” she asked Aric.
“Steal a train.”
The Jews of Theresienstadt proclaim their allegiance to Herr Kommandant because he is still Herr Kommandant and orders around all the soldiers who apparently don’t read their email or check the bulletin boards for the daily update on which high-ranking officers have been arrested for treason.
“You are the one we have heard about! You have come to save us!”
There’s a lot of running around getting ready to steal the train. The Leftover Jews get ready to wreak holy vengeance on their captors in front of the Red Cross. They accomplish this by making themselves look even more sickly and bedraggled by smearing their faces with ashes because Mordecai in the Bible walked around in sackcloth and ashes and this is a Bible story and it’s vitally important to get a famous phrase like “sackcloth and ashes” wrangled into the plot even though it’s completely irrelevant to the story. It’s time for something gruesome for high-octane shock value.
DO NOT ASK WHERE THEY GOT THE ASHES.
I cannot snark about this. It’s exactly what you’re thinking.
I cannot snark, but I feel compelled to curse.
WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK THAT IS SO APPALLING IN SO MANY WAYS WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU???
*deep cleansing breath*
It’s the eve of Purim, the Jewish holiday celebrating Esther’s courage. This occasion is observed by Aric the Nazi formally proposing marriage to Hadassah in front of thousands of Jews who all clap and cheer for them and not one single guard notices.
“Sheathed in tumid clouds, the sun spread milky rays across miles of whiteness.”’
“Sheathed” and “tumid” *snerk*
You guys, Hadassah’s eyes are blue! It’s like a sign from God!
He saw then the face of his beloved, how Austria shone clear and pure in her blue eyes.
Before they make the Great Escape, they set the ghetto on fire as a distraction.
They’re finally on the train. Stella is stuck in a middle car but needs to be in the first car so she climbs onto the roof of the train and almost falls off but the Hand of God reaches down to save her (no lie) and then she climbs on the roof again.
Why does she need to be in the first car, you ask? Because she has the flare guns needed to signal the crew at the railroad switching point. Because you can’t ever fire a flare gun from anywhere other than the first car of a train, and you definitely cannot just hand them to your fellow escapees and ask them politely to pass them forward.
Also, being on the roof allows her to interrupt Aric and Hermann’s Final Fistfight of Fate at exactly the right time.
Prior to this fistfight, there was a group shootout on top of the train in which all the Nazi guards died, because of course they did. There was also a LOT of monologuing by Snidely Whiplash…er, Hermann the Horrible…to show us one last time what a stupid Nazi he is. Stella ends the fisticuffs by shooting Hermann with the flare gun.
His vision dimmed as every cell in his body shifted, creating a weightlessness he’d never felt before. Even with his labored breathing, he imagined he could fly on the cusp of the icy wind, beyond himself, beyond pain. A shiver rattled his body. He felt so cold . . .
That was actually quite satisfying.
But wait – there’s more!
The captain’s body dropped and rolled like a felled tree—then slammed into Hadassah, who was hovering at the edge of open space between the cars. They both disappeared….
“Hold on, Hadassah!” he shouted, and reached down with his free hand to pull Hermann’s body away from her….
The corpse skidded against the side of the train, flouncing like a wild puppet on strings, before dropping beneath the bone-crushing motion of the train’s wheels.
More smooching and more Bible verses.
Meanwhile, the Leftover Jews welcome the Red Cross to Theresienstadt. The Red Cross is appropriately horrified and notifies everyone and they shut down all the concentration camps that very minute and nothing bad happens the entire rest of the war.
WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK THAT IS SO APPALLING IN SO MANY WAYS WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU???
The Train of Freedom makes it to the border, but a broken track gets them bogged down in Ukrainian mud. The Jews depart the train under heavy fire from the Germans. Oh, excuse me – they “streamed from their deathpens like fleeing ants.”
Until, that is….
A voice roared from the depths of the crowd. As the throng began to part, Hadassah’s heart leaped at the sight of her uncle, knee-deep in mud and wielding a machine gun.
“Purim!” bellowed another from the outer fringes of the multitude. “Purim!” cried a third, this time a woman’s voice. Instantly, thousands mired in the boggy slope took up the cry, a single word passed between them like a mantra, a shibboleth that alone could ensure their victory.
NOTE: That bit did not happen in the Bible. Not even in the Jewish Bible. Which doesn’t really mean anything because there is no such thing as a “Jewish Bible” and therefore it is perfectly acceptable to do whatever you want with Jewish history and culture because it’s all fiction anyway and nobody will ever notice.
Glossary time! A “shibboleth” is a Hebrew word meaning “the author did her homework and read some stuff about Jewish people on that one website.”
Aric gets shot and falls face-first into the mud. #sorrynotsorry
Hadassah must go on.
Meanwhile, another little Jewish girl is shot by the Nazis to remind us that the purpose of little Jewish girls is to serve as props to demonstrate Nazi brutality in bad historical fiction.
Chapter 50 is my favorite because it’s finally the end of this horrifying book and 50 is a nice round number and a very nice number of chapters to have in a book.
The Story of Stella’s Salvation spreads far and wide. Aric is miraculously resurrected (my words, not the author’s, but I’m guessing it was in at least one draft, assuming there were multiple drafts and at least some editing and never mind *sigh*) and he shows up with a Pearl of Great Significance and he smells like pine and spice and coffee.
“When the war is over, I must face whatever justice metes out—”
“You won’t face it alone, my son.”
My literary analysis:
- I was really pulling for him to just stay dead.
- I drank so much vodka last night trying to finish that book. It’s amazing I didn’t wake up with a hangover.
- Responsible people should have at every step of the way said “you can’t publish this because it’s wrong and it’s crappy”
- “Dear Bethany House, there are Jews in the editing business at both story and copy level. You should hire some.”
- You can only go up from here, bookishly speaking.
- I was utterly unprepared for how bad this book is.
- The only way the book works is if it’s in an alternate universe.
- This is one of the most fucked up books I’ve ever read, and I’ve read 50 Shades.
- I picture her [the author] living in a gated community.
- There’s so nothing good about this book. NOTHING.
- I wanted them all to die.
- The book filled me with so much pure HAAATE I was ready to go out and set things on fire.
- You know, if it had been out and out erotica with non stop fucking, I would have been more OK with that.
- It’s like every time you thought you’ve figured out why and how it’s shitty, here’s another layer!
- It’s like a shit sandwich in infinite dimensions. It’s a shit tesseract.