Zelitch, Simone E. 1963?-
ZELITCH, Simone E. 1963?-
PERSONAL: Born c. 1963 in Philadelphia, PA; married Doug Bucholz (a professor); children: one stepdaughter. Education: Wesleyan University, B.A.; University of Michigan, M.F.A.
ADDRESSES: Home—Mount Airy, PA. Office—Community College of Philadelphia, 1700 Spring Garden St., Philadelphia, PA 19130. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Writer. Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, creative writing instructor; University of Veszprem, Hungary, Peace Corps teacher, 1991-92; Community College of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA, instructor and director of poets and writers series.
AWARDS, HONORS: Hopwood Award, University of Michigan, for The Confession of Jack Straw; University of the Arts Venture Fund grant; Pennsylvania Council for the Arts fellowship; Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers Prize, National Foundation of Jewish Culture, 2000, for Louisa.
The Confession of Jack Straw, Black Heron Press (Seattle, WA), 1991.
Louisa, G. P. Putnam's Sons (New York, NY), 2000.
Moses in Sinai, Black Heron Press (Seattle, WA), 2001.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A novel about the civil rights movement in Mississippi.
SIDELIGHTS: Simone Zelitch's historical novel The Confession of Jack Straw is a story of a failed fourteenth-century English peasant revolt as told through Jack Straw's confession on the eve of his execution. There was, in fact, a real Straw figure, Michael Row, whose confession was purportedly written down by clergy before his head was displayed on London Bridge. Zelitch adds to what is known and creates a tale that includes Straw's crippled sister Jenny and John Ball, the latter a parson who takes Straw on as an apprentice and teaches him to read. When Ball is imprisoned, Straw petitions the lords, leads a group of peasants to Rochester Castle in an attempt to free him, and then continues on to London. More supporters join the peasants, who are loyal to King Richard and blame his uncle John for their plight. A Kirkus Reviews contributor noted that "the Middle Ages are rendered not on silver platters or thrones but on the dusty roads and straw beds of peasants, who are given center stage here, not limited to comic relief." Choice's J. Sudrann wrote that the author's skill "not only enables her to walk this tightrope between fact and fiction without faltering but also to link the triumph and betrayal of these peasants."
Zelitch's second novel, Louisa, is a reworking of the biblical story of Ruth and Naomi. Before writing it, Zelitch spent two years with the Peace Corps, teaching in Hungary. There she visited the sites of former Jewish communities, as well as cemeteries and the ruins of synagogues. She also traveled to Israel where she spoke to people old enough to have experienced World War II and remember the years following it. She also spoke with historians and found museums filled with artifacts that helped her construct the period about which she would be writing.
Reviewing Louisa in the Washington Post Book World, Judith Bolton-Fasman wrote that "while there are parallel stories throughout, most obviously between Louisa and Ruth and Nora and Naomi, there is also plenty of room for the kind of narrative elaboration offered by midrash or interpretative stories. And Louisa is in many ways an extended midrash with imaginative riffs on memory."
Nora, the narrator, is a bitter, chain-smoking survivor of the Nazi extermination of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, and Louisa is her twenty-two–year-old Christian German daughter-in-law who insists on accompanying her to Israel after its creation in 1949. Earlier in her life Nora had been briefly married to a man who abandoned her and who was the father of her son, Gabor. Louisa is sixteen years old when she becomes infatuated with Gabor, a composer who takes advantage of her and plans to use their marriage as a way to escape persecution. When the Nazis invade Budapest, Gabor is killed, and Louisa hides Nora, saving her life. Nora allows Louisa to cling to her only because of that debt. Nora has only one living relative, her cousin Bela, with whom she had a very close relationship and secretly loves. Bela immigrated to British Palestine in 1920, and Nora is hopeful that they will be reunited when she reaches Israel. When she does find Bela, she learns that his life has been no more fulfilling than hers. "Zelitch's narrative teases with emotional puzzles and surprises with unexpected developments," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor. "She shows virtuosic skill with background and atmosphere."
David Sacks wrote in a New York Times Book Review article that "the flashbacks to the teenage couple's Budapest romance are among the book's best scenes—cruel yet hilarious. … Ofallthe novel's successes, the portrait of Louisa steals the show. Deftly, the author conveys the eerie tenacity and resourcefulness that lie behind her deceptively timid manner. … In her foolishness over Gabor or in the Israeli refugee camp where she's taunted by German-hating survivors, Louisa seems a complete victim. Yet, like others of history's persecuted, she endures and triumphs." Louisa learns Hebrew and converts, becoming even more dedicated in her faith than the other immigrants. Sacks compared Louisa to Isaac Bashevis Singer's The Family Moskat and William Styron's Sophie's Choice, and said that "remarkably, Zelitch's book holds its own, thanks to a satisfying plot, vivid characters, a tart narrative voice, and a bold conceit. … While often poignant, the storytelling avoids melodrama, self-righteousness, and graphic horror—all the pitfalls of Holocaust fiction. Instead, suspense, surprising revelations, and dry humor enliven the mix. The result is a wonderfully bittersweet work that broods on loss even as it affirms human resilience, connection, and a faith in providence."
Booklist's Michelle Kaske wrote, "Zelitch's talent shines in this well-paced epic novel." "Readers may appreciate the historical and political events surrounding the story," said Cathleen A. Towey in Library Journal. In the Philadelphia City Paper online, Kelly McQuain wrote that Nora's "tales loop back through time, saturated with the weight of the past. Often, her personal spin obscures objective reality—and that's when the novel becomes an act of imagination as much as memory. Nora describes events she couldn't possibly have been privy to, but she works her words like smoke breathed into just-blown glass: impossibility lessens to improbability, which in turn swirls into something exquisite and new—a lie more precious than truth. The force and utter conviction of Nora's take on events drives the book forward, while her prickly demeanor soon proves to be a mask."
A Publishers Weekly reviewer called Moses in Sinai a "dark follow-up" to Louisa, "a literary impression of the biblical hero Moses, painting his life as one continuous horror." As in the traditional story of Moses, the baby is put in the river after Pharaoh orders the deaths of Jewish male children. In this version, however, the baby's father weighs him down with a stone in his mouth, hoping that he will drown swiftly and silently. Moses's sister Miriam, a witch, spirits him to Pharaoh's insane daughter, who gives him a live coal to suck on, leaving the child disfigured and with a speech impediment. She treats the child like a pet, then loves him as a man; when he learns he is not Egyptian and begins to question the slavery of the Jews, Moses deserts her to lead the Hebrews to Sinai. Moses's brother Aaron, a homosexual high priest in the temple of Seth, helps him rally the people, but these Hebrews are content using magic, worshiping idols, and being slaves. Melanie C. Duncan wrote in Library Journal that the Moses of Moses in Sinai "appears predominantly as a madman, almost a cultlike figure destined to lead disbelieving tribes of slaves into the wilderness to freedom." Kaske maintained that fans of biblical fiction "will enjoy this book."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, August, 2000, Michelle Kaske, review of Louisa, p. 2118; December 1, 2001, Michelle Kaske, review of Moses in Sinai, p. 632.
Choice, December, 1991, J. Sudrann, review of The Confession of Jack Straw, p. 598.
Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 1991, review of The Confession of Jack Straw, p. 436.
Library Journal, August, 2000, Cathleen A. Towey, review of Louisa, p. 164; February 1, 2002, Melanie C. Duncan, review of Moses in Sinai, p. 82.
New York Times Book Review, November 19, 2000, David Sacks, review of Louisa, p. 71; January 27, 2002, Scott Beale, review of Louisa, p. 24.
Publishers Weekly, July 24, 2000, review of Louisa, p. 66; November 5, 2001, review of Moses in Sinai, p. 41.
Washington Post Book World, October 15, 2000, Judith Bolton-Fasman, review of Louisa, p. 6.
Bookreporter,http://www.bookreporter.com/ (October 13, 2000), "Simone Zelitch" (interview).
Peace Corps Writers Web site,http://peacecorpswriters.org/ (January, 2000), Simone Zelitch, "The Ashtray; or, How I Wrote Louisa" (interview).
Philadelphia City Paper Onlinehttp://www.citypaper.net/ (October 5, 2000), Kelly McQuain, "Rethinking Ruth" (interview).*