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Esther: A Jewish Odyssey

By Margaret Goldik

A review of Esther: A Jewish Odyssey by Pierre Lasry

Published on January 1, 2006

Esther: A Jewish Odyssey
Pierre Lasry

IDBAR Editions
paper
386pp
2-9807385-1-4

Pierre Lasry published the historical novel, Une juive en nouvelle-France, in 2002. It won the J. I. Segal French Literature Award. He has now written an English version. His background is in writing and directing documentaries for the National Film Board, and there is a definite cinematic flavour to this book.

The historical facts of Esther Brandao’s story are taken from the Minute Book of Varin de la Mare, Harbour Police Commissioner in Quebec City in September 1738. Esther, dressed as a boy, dressed as a boy, runs away at 15 from her native city of Bayonne in 1735. Shipwrecked, imprisoned, and peripatetic, Esther is finally forced to become a colonist in New France. On board ships her gender is discovered. Worse, a Star of David, along with a cross, is found around her neck.

Esther was a chocolate maker with a wonderful future ahead of her – if only she not been Jewish. She had been sent as a small child to a convent, where she was “converted” in a mass baptism. Later she came back to live with her fellow New Christians in the Jewish quarter of Bayonne. When she gets to New France she is immediately a problem: non-Catholics were not allowed to settle in the new colony.

Esther’s story is one of identity confusion on several levels: she struggles with her religion, her fear of being female, and her fear of love. To Lasry’s credit, he differentiates between the social system, which espoused a rather militant Christianity, and human beings, who could be credulous and cruel but also kind. The omniscient narrator has much to say about events in Esther’s life from a 21st century perspective, which continually brings the reader flowing through time.

Lasry’s language is colourful, even sumptuous. Well-researched historical details flesh out the book without being too distracting. Esther’s story is worth a leisurely read, and would make a fascinating movie. mRb

Margaret Goldik is a former editor of the Montreal Review of Books.

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