My character Mike Bannock has a great deal of energy. I know that now because in my story he has already told the stories of Moses, David and Solomon have been told to the kiddoes–and all in one Easter–to be followed by Esther, Ruth and more. He has more energy than me, in fact: I am taking a break from rewriting Esther. I have a method to such storytelling: I retell the story in Mike’s lingo, and I tell it from the heart without the aid of the Biblical text right next to me. No story is complete in telling to a child if the book is right there demanding it be “told just how it was written.” Well, perhaps Alice in Wonderland and Just So Stories require the book–Alice’s story because it is so long and Just So Stories because the wordplay is difficult to capture without the exact words in front of you. I have never tried to tell Alice in Wonderland to a child–I merely read it as a child–and I have told “The Elephant’s Trunk” to my nephews and niece with and without the book and am forced to admit I do better with the book.
I have heard and read things about Esther that I reflect upon as I write the story. First, there is its humor, both intentional and also possibly unintentional. The scene which is particularly hilarious is watching the evil Haman put Esther’s Cousin Mordecai on the King’s finest horse and parades in the capital. The intended comeuppance is that Mordecai saved the King’s life whereas Haman cajoled the King into ordering the killing of all the Jews of Persia. It is especially biting because the King asked Haman how “a man should be honored whom the king wishes to honor” and Haman, thinking he was to be honored, picked the way himself. Yet there is also the intended humor: Haman hates Mordecai and there is no sense in which Mordecai doesn’t hate him. Despite the intended humor, isn’t there a sense in which they might both be uncomfortable, and wish intensely that they were someplace, anyplace else? Does a normal person really want to be led horseback through the streets of Persia with loud praise emanating from their least favorite person on earth?
People forget the meaning of the Bible’s words, because of the stateliness of the translations and the many layers of reverence placed on the book by tradition. Not that I’m against tradition: Jews put a great stock on learning how to read the Bible and then the Talmud, and finding the hidden meaning in scrolls that is not there on a surface reading of the text. Yet I keep thinking of a book Mom had that I wish I knew where it was: it told the stories of the “people” in the Bible, and called the King who had Haman lead Mordecai through the streets of Persia “the greatest fool in the Bible.” I did not understand what he meant until adulthood, and yet it makes me think that sometimes even ordinary people see what scholars don’t.
Don’t mistake me: I appreciate the scholarship of such men as Walter Brueggemann and Abraham Joshua Heschel, too. Yet there is a sense in which sometimes the average Joe can look into the sea of words that is scripture and draw forth a string of pearls. Perhaps that is why, average Joe though he isn’t, I have William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom on my shelves, and why if I ever forgive him for what he did to Sanora Bab (he may have stolen the idea for Grapes of Wrath from her), John Steinbeck’s East of Eden might be one of my favorite books. Both Absalom, Absalom (the story of David’s son Absalom in 2nd Samuel) and East of Eden (the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis), retell Biblical stories in ways that even people who are not especially religious can enjoy and understand. I remember even reading about East of Eden in a book by Harold Kushner and finding it appropriate. For those who like looking at scripture through the secular lens, James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones is also a wonderful book: though it focuses on black sermons rather than the scripture itself.
A story lives every time it is told. And with that in mind, I will get back to Esther. I probably will wait another day for Ruth…