Not being terribly religious myself and having been raised in a small to medium-sized Arkansas town in the middle of the Bible Belt for most of my life Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and any other religious group not Southern Baptist were not in large supply. In fact, the first time I met an Orthodox Jew was in my late twenties at a trade show for advertising and promotional products. I didn’t understand why this guy got so mad (he actually turned red and stormed) off when I commented on how cool his beanie was and asked how much it would cost to get names or logos on it, or if it could be Bedazzled, until my boss through tears of laughter pulled me aside and explained it to me.
Hereville is a trade paperback for younger readers, aged 8-12, based on the web comic series by Barry Deutsch. Oh, and this book is Jewish. This book so Jewish that I am surprised it wasn’t shipped with its own yarmulke and certified kosher and I mean that in a good way. I consider myself to be a fairly educated person but knowledge of different religions is an apparent large blind spot for me as I am sure it is for many children growing up in small towns across America. For those children, this book serves as a great introduction.
Let’s get the obligatory summary out of the way shall we? Eleven year old Mirka Hirschberg is not interested in knitting, advice on husband finding, or any of the things that girls her age should be interested in, but instead dreams of swords dragons and adventure. One day she and her siblings are on their way to school when they come across a strange house they do not remember seeing before. Mirka makes the big mistake of eating a few of the grapes that grew on the house’s fence and earns the wrath of a talking pig determined to make her life as miserable as possible.
During one of their many confrontations she saves the pig’s life and earns a favor from the witch the pig belongs to. The witch then tells her where to find a troll who has a magic sword. The troll, naturally enough, challenges Mirka to a sweater knitting contest and the winner gets the sword.
The first rule of all new authors is to write what you know and the author does just that. I liked the fact that Deutsch immerses us in the Orthodox Jewish world. The dress, customs, and Yiddish sayings, which he helpfully provides the meaning of at the bottom of each page all ring true. I found this look into another culture extremely fascinating and out of all the new ideas presented I was especially taken with the idea of Shabbos.
Every week from sundown of the sixth day until sundown of the seventh day Orthodox Jews are not allowed to work. No grasses mowed, no homework finished, no dishes cleaned, no nothing. All food is prepared in advance and even the toilet paper is pre-ripped to avoid work. This got me thinking as to what would actually constitute work. If you’re congested and have to cough hard to clear your chest is that considered work? What if the house catches on fire? Can you put it out? What if the fire threatened your child? Could you put it out then? After finishing this book I spent a lot of that day trying out scenarios in my head, trying to figure out where the line between necessary activity and working was and any book that leaves you thinking when you are done reading it can’t be a bad thing.
Have I mentioned yet how much I love the talking pig? Pigs are cool. Talking is cool. Talking pigs are especially cool. Take a talking pig, mix in some Looney Tunes Roadrunner/Coyote sight gags and you have comedy gold my friends. I wanted more pig and hopefully the mutual hatred he and Mirka have for each other will continue if there is a second volume. I got a fever and the only prescription is more talking pig!
Unfortunately, for all that is right with this book it still feels unfinished. Mirka spends the whole book getting her sword and then…..nothing. And while I appreciated the translations for Yiddish expressions at the bottom of the page I would also liked to have a glossary for easy reference.
As a self-contained story this book feels like a first draft that needed a little work. A better ending and a little more consistency in the depiction of the characters would have gone a long way to improving things overall. However, as a primer of sorts for younger readers into this different world Deutsch gets everything right and any book that has me thinking after I close the cover has done something right. Here’s hoping for a second volume.