Prod any little kid to see what she loves best and you’re likely to hear “Christmas, birthday, Halloween,” though perhaps in a different order. Prod her mommy and you’re likely to hear the same, with the addition of “family.” Prod me and you’ll definitely get family and holidays. I look forward to holidays with the anticipation of fun, feast, friends, family, and food. Calendars include all religious, cultural, and national holidays, the entries growing every year. With such emphasis on celebrations it’s hardly unexpected that we writers would include some kind of holiday in our books.
All my books revolve around family and the complex relationships that drive individuals to investigate their personal histories in order to pursue their futures. Every book I’ve written employs at least one holiday, including my current WIP. This one is about two Jewish families struggling during the Depression with declining incomes, local prejudice, educating their children, and the bar mitzvahs of oldest sons. But The Milkman’s Horse is not the book I want to talk about at the moment.
About twenty years ago I played with the idea of pursuing a multi-generational family over several decades, using the Jewish holiday of Passover as the vehicle. Passover is a holiday of fours, the symbolism of four showing up in its four names, four versions of telling the story, four children, (sons, if you’re Orthodox) four questions, four cups of wine, (sips, in my house) four promises of redemption, the four mothers who worked like crazy at the back of the tent to make the first Passover meal, and the four billion mothers (and fathers) who cooked all the meals that followed. If you’ve ever prepared a Passover seder, you know what I mean about the food. For one thing, leavened bread is forbidden – try cooking dinner for twenty or so folks without preparing anything that’s leavened. Yeah, you need a grove of fruit to keep things, er, regular, and that’s part of the metaphor as well. With such a trove of meaning, how could I not find a story to write?
The story would follow as families squabbled, kids grew up, marriages failed, and people confessed their secrets and sins until something extraordinarily mindboggling happened, drawing the plot to a close. I could never figure out what that extraordinary event would turn out to be. There’s only so much that can be done with unleavened bread and Manischewitz wine. After a while the concept bored me, and I knew it would bore readers.
Still, that initial idea provoked me until it metamorphosed into The Inlaid Table, a story of generations separated by an ocean and a war. The book opens with a family celebrating Passover, a holiday branded with the idea of rebirth and freedom. However, the rituals of the holiday take a back seat to the exasperating family quibbles and gripes that end up tainting every diner. The story is here, in the tenuous family dynamic torn asunder. The flight to religious freedom? Not at this Passover.
This newer iteration of my original idea employs Passover as loose webbing, not the steel scaffolding first envisioned. The book’s focus is two women who are emblematic of their time, one an eventual victim of the Holocaust, the other an American indecisive about her future. No one need know anything about Passover to understand and enjoy the story, and that’s crucial. Some of my previewers knew a great deal, others nothing at all. Their reviews commented on the strengths of the story and noted areas of concern, much of them addressed in re-writes.
A book must first of all entertain, must engage and trigger imagination sufficient to prompt the reader to turn pages. My first idea would have failed because of a propensity toward preaching, the this-is-how-it’s-done approach. Locking any story to a stiff spine of telling someone how to live according to a set of rules, and stitching characters to that edict, won’t create enthusiasm or sympathy. Characters need to be quirky and individual, plodding through their lives with enough klutziness and self-delusion to be endearing. A little nobility helps as well as a tendency to forge a new path no matter how prickly the brambles overhead. Redemption isn’t possible if one has nothing to redeem, and who wants to read a story about a protagonist with nothing to learn? No one likes their heroes perfect. Even Moses had a speech defect.
The more I dropped the focus on the Passover holiday in Table, the more the holiday became background, messy and believable, and the story richer. That was the lesson for me, to create a story around characters that celebrate and fail rather than a holiday that directs the plot. Passover became a sidebar. The drama ramped up, the characters grew, fell apart, grew some more.
Calendars help us note our holidays but our achievements make us who we are. Whether your characters celebrate Chanukah, Christmas, or Mergatroid Crowning Day, let the holidays in your story whisper but not preach, let them reflect your characters but not manipulate them, and let your story find its own truth. It may not be about the holiday at all; failures and disappointments mark our days as well as sublime moments. The story may be about Angetha and Rufert living in a swampy world where hippopotami rule. That’s the tale you may just want to write. Be sure to include the celebration of their annual Creeping Root Slither Frolic.
Wedding Dance in the Open Air by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, circa 1566