Archive for July, 2008


“Ipse galeos, O cara, bellos dentes habet…”

For more than twenty years, one annual event has made television more lurid, more gruesome, and increasingly frenzied for ratings. I refer, of course, to Shark Week.

Last year, any given Shark Week program was watched by four million people. I can’t recall ever having seen a single minute of Shark Week—but it occurred to me that some of those four million pairs of eyeballs are mounted in the skulls of indiscriminate Googlers with a passion for bloodthirsty monsters of the deep.

And so, good lords and gentle ladies, I bid ye welcome to

“Hey, Jeff,” I hear yon straw man cry, “what’s Medieval Shark Week all about?”

Medieval Shark Week is about food!

Eat shark like the Vikings did! Here’s a recipe for hákarl, the famous rotten-shark delicacy of the Icelanders. All you need is a shark, a gravel hole near the seashore, and someplace to hang a cadaver for four months. “Don’t try this at home,” the recipe advises, “unless you know what the end product is supposed to taste like.”

Medieval Shark Week is about fun!

If you’re a gamer, you’ll want to play TIMESHARK II: Medieval Shark Strike Force, in which you become a time-traveling shark transported back to medieval Germany to feast on clones of Adolf Hitler.

Download the game for Mac or PC here. You’ll find instructions on the second page of this thread, where the game’s author reveals that TIMESHARK is an acronym for “Time-travelling Intimidation and Mastication Expert: Sharks Have Ample Reason to Kill.”

Medieval Shark Week is about scholarship!

The New York Times reports that the International Shark Attack File “holds approximately 3,200 reports of shark attacks, from medieval times to the present,” but that “[o]nly qualified researchers are allowed access to the documents themselves.” Huzzah! A dissertation topic for anyone who can’t bear to read another word about monastic reform.

The “fossils” entry in Medieval Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs has this to say:

Fossil shark teeth, taken for petrified serpents’ tongues, were named glossopetrae (tongue stones) or St. Paul’s tongues and were worn as amulets to neutralize poisons. Beginning in the fifteenth century it was fashionable to suspend an array of sharks’ teeth on a gilded and bejeweled tree-shaped rack, called a languier or Natternzungenbaum, on one’s dining table ready for dipping into wine. Languiers were also hung over baby’s cots for protection.

I hope you’re all taking notes, because there’s going to be a short quiz next period.

Medieval Shark Week is about irony!

A suit of armor was once found inside a shark’s stomach—but were it not for medieval chainmail, we might never have learned how to protect ourselves from shark bites.

Medieval Shark Week is about making a lame joke jump itself!

The Tudor Shoppe, “purveyors of fine wares for 16th-century enthusiasts,” sells a shark hand puppet.

Why not buy a medieval shark dagger?

A manticore was often said to possess shark-like teeth.

Medieval Shark Week is about running out of material on the first day!

So maybe we could make it Shark and Manticore Week? Because really, who doesn’t love a lion with a human face? Hey, wait—where’s everybody going? Uh, guys, wait up! Guys?

“Two-one-zero, der Alarm ist rod…”

Basking in the sun? Reading? Wrangling children? Whatever your weekend plans, here are some spiffy links if you find yourself indoors.

Heather Domin continues her tour of the Roman garden with cumin and dill. (Click the “in hortum” tag for her entire series.)

Geoffrey Chaucer re-brands his blog.

Brandon ponders The Historian’s Craft.

Open Letters Monthly mourns Lyall Watson and revisits The Last Unicorn.

Got Medieval finds a medieval law book with not-safe-for-work drawings that put the “stare” in “stare decisis.”

Linda finds the humble remains of a monastery founded by Charlemagne’s dad—and proof that the French drink boxed wine.

The Hogwarts Professor contemplates the medievalism of Harry Potter.

Time magazine describes the lives of recent poets laureate. (Link via Books, Inq.)

Scott Nokes invites you to learn Old English this fall.

Ephemeral New York finds mythical sea creatures on Manhattan buildings and farm animals in Central Park.

Finally, here’s Jose Iturbi conducting an abridged version of Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No. 1, with Larry Adler on harmonica. (Come on, who else is gonna link to that?)

“He brewed a song of love and hatred…”

In his English translation of The Battle of Kosovo, John Matthias commends his co-translator, Vladeta Vučković, and offers this passage from Vučković’s modern poem about Serbian legend and history:

The Serbs quieted down, but they did not shut their mouths. Idled by the time on their hands they started to sing and sang themselves hoarse in endless poems accompanied by the mourning sounds of the sobbing gusle. The blind guslars gazed into the future, and those who could see covered themselves out of shame and became the leaders of the blind. But what kind of music is this, my poor soul, reduced to just one string!

I was inspired to hunt for this gloomy passage after the Guardian reported that prior to his capture on Monday, Radovan Karadžić liked to jam on the gusle in a Belgrade pub:

In retrospect, it is hardly surprising it was his favourite pub. The walls and bar of the Luda Kuca (the name means madhouse) are adorned with the Serb pantheon – Slobodan Milosevic, Vojislav Seselj, Ratko Mladic and of course, Radovan Karadzic – each one a nationalist hero. For the hardline clientele, the fact that they also shared the distinction of having been charged by The Hague war crimes tribunal only enhanced their status as warriors.

There were many stories being told yesterday about the man the locals knew as Doctor David, psychiatrist holistic health guru and mystic. But one winter’s night in particular was passing speedily into folklore.

That night, there was a jamming session on the gusle, the one-string fiddle played across the Balkans to accompany epic poetry. Dabic turned up to listen and was eventually persuaded to join in. Those present that night shook their heads yesterday in disbelief at the memory. There was Radovan Karadzic, their hero and icon, playing the gusle for them under his own portrait, and no one had a clue who he was. It was the stuff of legend.

Raso Vucinic, a young Serb nationalist who had been playing the gusle that night, was burnishing a tale he would one day tell his grandchildren.

Balkan epic poems are a gift to the world. Early in the 20th century, recorded performances of epics such as The Wedding of Smailagić Meho helped a generation of scholars better understand the compositional techniques behind Beowulf and other medieval works, and the surviving fragments of the Kosovo cycle are tinged with wistful eloquence. The stories they tell are exciting and sad—but these songs can’t be sung in a vacuum.

Five years ago, while visiting Serbian friends, I found myself in an ancient city on the Montenegrin coast. To escape the midday sun, we ducked into a run-down shop full of pirated software and used compact discs. On a high shelf, safe behind glass, was a special item: a cassette case adorned with a somber portrait of Slobodan Milošević. My host squinted at the title and explained, ruefully, that the cassette was a recording of epic poems lamenting the tragic downfall of Milošević, performed in the traditional manner and set to the screech of the gusle. It wasn’t on sale for its philological interest.

Karadžić, by contrast, composed his own tale. In 1992, for the benefit of documentarians, he played the gusle in the house of his 19th-century forefather Vuk Karadžić, a philologist whose work gave Serbian nationalists something to sing about. A poet himself, Radovan knew that moving incognito among his own people as a bearded mystic would be reminiscent of epic, a motif so cleverly adapted that even his own capture would make for a beguiling story.

Medievalists, take note: sometimes, this is how epic heroes are made, under conditions so ugly that lawyers start to wonder whether poetry can be a war crime. If nothing else, the long-overdue capture of Karadžić, dramatic though it is, refutes that old Joseph Campbell baloney: sometimes the hero has only two faces, and neither one is really worth a damn.

“Into the sea, you and me…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

At your local Barnes & Noble, the Lloyd Alexander selection is probably small. You’ll find all five books in the Prydain series and rarely anything else—but these days, if the store stocks any other Alexander novel, you will see, inexplicably, Time Cat.

By 1963, Alexander had written five books for adults and two books for children, but Time Cat was his first attempt at young-adult fantasy. He sets up the premise hastily: While hiding in his bedroom, a boy named Jason convinces his cat, Gareth, to spend his nine lives taking him on a tour of history. By the fourth page, with no further explanation, Jason and Gareth are romping through ancient Egypt and Roman Britain; soon they’re offering advice to Saint Patrick and posing for Leonardo da Vinci.

Unfortunately, Jason and Gareth never stay anywhere long enough for Alexander to turn his favorite historical figures into memorable characters, and his writing is sometimes awkward. Sentences like “Jason, expecting he didn’t know what, breathed a sigh of relief,” are oddly informal, and the emotion in Time Cat feels false:

“You know, Gareth,” he said, “your whiskers do look like the rays of the sun. And I do think you could hold the moon in your eyes if you wanted to.”
“So the Egyptians say,” Gareth answered.
“Oh, Gareth,” Jason whispered, “why don’t you try?”

The lessons of Time Cat are simple and repetitive. Jason and Gareth humble the Pharaoh when he learns that cats won’t heed his commands; they teach the emperor of Japan the same lesson; and in 16th-century Peru, they frustrate a Spanish captain who also wants cats to do tricks. When Jason and Gareth return to the present, Gareth declares, “If you think back, everybody we met had something to tell you—about themselves, and about yourself. It’s a way of finding out a part of what you have to know to be a grown-up.” Alexander’s later novels made this same point with eloquence and wit; in Time Cat, Gareth’s conclusion isn’t supported by a hasty field trip through history.

For some readers, that field trip may be enough, and I’m sure Time Cat has introduced many children to the study of history. But in the past 45 years, young-adult literature has grown so sophisticated—and Alexander’s later novels are such fine examples of their genre—that the current marketing push behind Time Cat is peculiar. It’s troubling to see Alexander at his most tentative, but I’m heartened by how quickly he bounced back: The Book of Three was published one year later.

“And near me on the grass lies Glanvil’s book…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

Lloyd Alexander described Gypsy Rizka best. “The main character is a young half-gypsy girl named Rizka, as the title says,” he told Scholastic in 1999:

She is so bright and smart and sassy and clever that she outwits the solemn and overblown townsfolk who are trying to do her in. It’s a very funny book because Rizka’s schemes—and she’s brilliant at them—are very comical. I should add that she always wins! And those idiot town dignitaries always lose, which is exactly the way it ought to be.

In this preview for young readers, Alexander highlights the most charming aspect of Gypsy Rizka; he also points out the novel’s significant flaw.

Considered a blot on Greater Dunitsa by the ruling elite, Rizka lives in a wagon on the edge of town. While she waits for her father to return with the rest of the gypsies, she sneaks around town with her tomcat and finds a father figure in the local blacksmith, the only person in Greater Dunitsa who’s even remotely sensible. Rizka, for her part, is implausibly competent: when she plays matchmaker, she unites two feuding families and finds homes for five stray kittens; she out-argues the local magistrate in court; she becomes the unofficial town doctor; and when an absurd law against insulting other people lands the entire fleabag aristocracy of Greater Dunitsa in the town’s only jail cell, Rizka is appointed mayor—and shows the good sense to abdicate for the sake of the greater good.

As the locals bicker, assert themselves, put on airs, and go about their pompous, petty lives, Alexander makes clear that disorder and discord are inevitable symptoms of human nature. Supernaturally clever, Rizka rises above it all, dispensing justice and righting wrongs. Her confidence never falters, and her outlandish schemes never fail. The world of Gypsy Rizka is, of course, inherently comic, but the residents of Greater Dunitsa are presented as fools right from the start; Rizka easily humiliates them, and she never faces any real danger. Alexander may have delighted in a heroine who “always wins,” but her perfection obviates any real dramatic tension.

Fortunately, Alexander also delights in the telling. He describes Rizka as “skinny as a smoked herring; long-shanked, bright-eyed, with cheekbones sharp enough to whittle a stick.” Beginning authors who try to convey character through clothing could learn from his concise, witty descriptions:

Rizka wore her usual costume: a pair of homeless breeches she had rescued; boots cracked and split, hardly a memory of their former selves; an old army coat so outnumbered by patches the original garment had surrendered; her black hair tied with a string; a felt hat cocked on top.

A goulash of indeterminate Slavic, Germanic, Hungarian, and generically Balkan ingredients, the ramshackle town of Greater Dunitsa serves as a fine stage for a shabby comic retelling of Romeo and Juliet, and the perceptive reader may notice a nod or two to Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale.” As in fabliau, the locals are amusingly provincial: Only one resident, the local war hero, has ever been outside of town, and the city fathers think nothing of putting a cat on trial for burglary. Smiling all the way, Alexander skirts the issue of human evil, asserts the harmlessness of fools, and opts for a comic conclusion: “No one’s as bad as they seem—or as good as they think they are.”

The weekend I discovered Gypsy Rizka in a secondhand bookshop, The Economist published a disheartening report on “the dismal lives and unhappy prospects of Europe’s biggest stateless minority,” the Roma. If you’ve seen real gypsies on the streets of Eastern Europe, you’ve surely never seen a Rizka. The gulf between the lives of actual Roma and the whimsical gypsies of literature is a worthwhile subject, but it’s primarily a concern for adults, who can’t help but sigh over fiction. Gypsy Rizka is a charming book for the way it captures the fantasy of a child: the wish to get one over on the grown-ups.

“…where the reading light was better, meow-meow-meow.”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

I had expected to kick off this review of My Five Tigers with a story about my own childhood cat: a plump, patient tabby named Scritchy who let us dress her in babushkas, who often sat upright like a human, and who clearly enunciated the word “ham.” I planned to deploy these and similar anecdotes more out of sarcasm than nostalgia, prepared as I was to cringe my way through Lloyd Alexander’s second book. How, in 1956, could a publisher commission an unknown author to write a 118-page account of his five house cats for adult readers? With a dismissive review half-composed in my head, I opened the book and braced for a great wave of treacle.

A few pages in, I grew downright reflective. In a chapter or two, I was near-elegiac. O Scritchy, why did you have to die?

Lloyd Alexander started out skeptical, too. As he explains in My Five Tigers, he and his wife returned from France after World War II and decided to take in a dog. Only when the dog ran away did they stumble into the enigmatic world of the feline. “[A]s I was to realize, humans are not always the most important features in a cat’s life,” Alexander muses, recalling his first encounter with a purring cat. “A strange kitten, in particular, has a number of affairs to settle. There are times, with cats, when we may only watch and try to understand.”

My Five Tigers is a patient philosophical exercise. Alexander admits to barely understanding cats, but he seeks greater understanding by describing what cats are like. New similes spring from every page: his cats are like Dickensian street waifs, Civil War soldiers, and African game beaters. His cat David is “respectful as an Etonian, a proper lower-form boy in a black suit” who, when caught bringing local strays into the house, starts “grinning like a night-club manager.” Moira, Alexander’s only female cat, is Annie Oakley when she’s active but remains at heart “a boudoir revolutionist, a violator of established order, a maker of exceptions who played by boys’ rules when it pleased her—and fell back on female prerogatives the rest of the time.” In keeping with Alexander’s insistence on similes, his conclusions are both tentative and characteristically humble. “At bottom,” he suggests, “cats are like music. The reason for their appeal to us can never be expressed too clearly.”

When My Five Tigers was published, The New York Times noted that the book was graceful but unsentimental. Reviewers might have said that about most of Alexander’s books; throughout his career, he steered free of cloying sentimentality by knowing how to make readers feel without telling them what to feel. Near the end of My Five Tigers, when Alexander introduces Solomon, a neglected and half-starved city kitten, he writes that “[h]is body had the shape of a half-deflated football and his spine showed through his red fur like a string of beads.” This one vivid sentence suggests cruelty and indifference, but it also offers an antidote: a tiny dose of basic human tenderness.

Thanks to Alexander’s talent for making readers care about the mundane—will Rabbit recover from his torn tendon? Can David Blacklamb adjust to new feline housemates?—My Five Tigers is more than a trifle. I can’t imagine a more eloquent first-person narrative about house cats, but Alexander’s discovery of love, heartache, adventure, and mystery in the world of suburban felines also hints at the wonderful novels he hadn’t yet written. This book shows that he already knew how to make a tale timeless: by dabbling in something like myth.

“Try to stop my world from turning…”

Thanks for stopping by the site, despite its dormancy. For a few days, I skipped town to sojourn in the glorious motherland (New Jersey), where I gave up books, the Internet, and medievalism in exchange for adventures with family and friends.

But during vacations, the past stays in sight; you just have to find the right angle. Behold: the main intersection of New Brunswick, New Jersey, sometime before 1940.


Subjected to urban churn, New Brunswick has been continuously redeveloped, with entire blocks giving way to newer, larger buildings. Today, if your ultimate goal is to picture the past, the view from above is perplexing.

But float to the ground, and in just a few seconds…

…you’re 89 years in the past.

“All the dishes got broken, and the car kept driving…”

The weekend approacheth. Here’s some neat new stuff from around the Web.

I recently posted photos from my visit to the New Orleans shrine and cemetery dedicated to a medieval saint. Last weekend, the Times-Picayune ran a piece about how the St. Roch neighborhood is doing.

Eternally Cool points out the impending return of chariot racing to Rome. (Put me in a gigantic Asterix helmet and I am so there.)

Steven Hart wants to see more Tamil pulp fiction.

Frank Wilson reviews a new Longfellow biography.

Some authors and bloggers are being sued. Contribute to their legal defense fund here.

D.C. now has a free litmag featuring excerpts from new books. The dissatisfied lawyer who founded Bit o’ Lit was recently profiled in the Washington Post. 

Ephemeral in New York digs up a curious phenomenon of yesteryear: Manhattan baby exhibitions.

“Clovis, Poitiers, Charles-the-Great, / Vikings, Verdun, papal state…” Apparently keen on producing a pre-modern version of “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Carl at Got Medieval wants you to summarize the Middle Ages in seven words or less.

Action figures of Pope Innocent III are on sale: two for $4.99. (“I’m telling you, son, he was the Optimus Prime of the early 13th century. Now stop crying and blow out the candles.”)

Finally, I enjoyed this letter in the June 28th-July 4th issue of The Economist, which hints at the cultural connections between the East and the medieval West:

SIR – I am a musician by profession and it was profoundly gratifying to see that, of all the possible images you could have chosen for your cover on progress in Iraq, you went for a photo of an Iraqi luthier fixing an oud, the Arabic ancestor of all Western lutes (June 14th). I exhort each and every one of your readers to take up the oud, or at least buy one from an Iraqi luthier. All political disagreements notwithstanding, the one thing the people of Iraq will need most critically in the years to come is a clientele, and not only in the oil trade.

Victor Kioulaphides
New York

Kioulaphides has composed a piece solely for instruments in the mandolin family; his solo compositions include “El Malecón” and “Variations on a Basque Melody.” His home page is here.

Whether you’re spending the weekend oud-shopping, sunbathing, or lost in a book: enjoy!

“Wild kind of look to the day…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

Partway through The Arkadians, Lloyd Alexander indulges an in-joke. Joy-in-Dance, the novel’s heroine, explains that during Arkadia’s golden age, mighty enchanters roamed the land. When she lists these mythic figures, they happen to possess Hellenized versions of names from three of Alexander’s earliest works. “She’s setting the scene very nicely for us,” declares one of her companions, ignorant of this rare wink to the reader. “It’s no doubt one of those tales of sentiment and tender feeling.”

The pleasant confusion of storytelling is, in fact, the entire point of The Arkadians, Alexander’s 1995 novel set in a variant of ancient Greece that’s all the more exciting for its strangeness. Here, the Trojan horse was actually a donkey, Odysseus’s wife wasn’t happy to see him, and American Indians rule the northern plains. With subtle but obvious glee, Alexander reshapes the world of Greek myth as if it’s been filtered through a child’s toy box, painted by Maxfield Parrish, and cast as Shakespearean comedy. The result is an amusing cast of oddballs that includes a befuddled clerk, a real live muse, a poet-turned-jackass, and a professional scapegoat. Each one has a reason for seeking help, Oz-like, from the mysterious Lady of Wild Things—and each one has a story to tell.

Those secondary stories told by the characters are the true delight of The Arkadians. Surprisingly playful for an author in his early 70s, Alexander whips up a prose pastoral romance, complete with digressions just lengthy enough to hold the interest of young-adult readers. Some of these stories are personal histories that retell episodes from Homeric epics. Others are creation myths, including one that reworks the Judeo-Christian story to make the loss of Paradise the fault of the male. Some tales are literally true, while others are shown to be blatantly false. As Lucian, the novel’s hero, tries to explain how he fled the royal court, his friend Fronto, the poet-turned-jackass, demands that he improve his biography:

“Conflict, struggle, suspense—that’s what’s needed to make a tale move along. You don’t just run off. They seize you. You fight them with all your strength, almost win; but they bind you hand and foot, get ready to chop you up with meat cleavers. You escape in the nick of time. I don’t know how. That’s a technical detail.”

“It didn’t happen that way,” Lucian protested.

“My point exactly,” said Fronto. “All the more reason to spice it up. The meat cleavers are an especially nice touch.”

Thanks to these sorts of knowing exchanges, The Arkadians becomes Lloyd Alexander’s clever and self-deprecating commentary on the human impulse to invent and embellish. Even as the novel’s heroes grow increasingly honest about their own stories, they learn that other people simply can’t help themselves: Catch-a-Tick, a starry-eyed young satyr, joins their fellowship, sees what he wants to see, and mythologizes their adventures on the spot.

To say more about The Arkadians would spoil its surprises, especially the in-jokes for readers of mythology. Snake prophets, talking animals, star-crossed lovers, shipwrecks, magic temples, feckless monarchs, goddesses and gods—Alexander recombines these classic elements of storytelling to illustrate such virtues as loyalty, love, mercy, and humility and to emphasize, as Shakespearean comedy often does, the complementary natures of women and men.

Alexander’s glee will displease dour nitpickers who don’t understand that the best myths are destined to mutate. Dogmatically respecting a myth’s provenance? Seeking its literal meaning? None of that, Alexander suggests, is particularly fun; joy in the telling is better by far. As Fronto, the poet-turned-jackass, aptly concludes, “If a storyteller worried about the facts—my dear Lucian, how could he ever get at the truth?”

“…as your little boat struggles through the warning waves.”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

Lloyd Alexander wanted to like Aaron Lopez; the fact that he couldn’t is hardly his fault. In The Flagship Hope, his second novel for children and his second novel in a series “designed to take young people on an adventurous expedition into the realms of Jewish experience,” Alexander spins a highly fictionalized account of the wealthiest merchant in 18th-century Rhode Island. Published in 1960, four years before the first Prydain novel, The Flagship Hope shows what happens when an author is given a story he simply cannot make his own.

The novel begins in Lisbon in 1752, a ghetto of “fruit, spilled wine, and poverty,” as Alexander sketches the history of the Marranos, Portuguese Jews who were forcibly baptized but who practiced their religion in secret for centuries. When 21-year-old Duarte Lopez presses his luck with the authorities, he’s forced to flee to Rhode Island, where he finds a welcoming Jewish community in Newport and a wealth of opportunity. “This is a new world,” his brother assures him, “but you are not alone in it.”

Free to take a Jewish name, Aaron Lopez becomes a shipping magnate and a philanthropist. He lays the cornerstone of Newport’s first synagogue, he endows the town library with books, and he pays for the passage of Jewish refugees after a Portuguese earthquake. His flagship, the Hope, becomes the symbol of the freedom he never enjoyed in Lisbon, and Alexander portrays him as a perceptive man with a poetic soul:

As Aaron looked with satisfaction and thankfulness on the results of his work his thoughts returned to the day, long before, when he and Abigail stood by the ship railing and he pointed out a distant whale. Then, the whale, the leviathan of the deep, had meant all of the New World to him. He had vowed to make a hook to capture it. Had he now, at last, caught the great creature?

As Aaron Lopez courts his wife, speaks fondly of books, and faces harassment by royal agents, Alexander makes him eminently likable. But throughout The Flagship Hope, the nature of Lopez’s business remains vague. Lopez was indeed one of the great merchants of 18th-century New England, and while Alexander specifically mentions his investments in spermaceti candles and rum, he alludes only vaguely to other aspects of his “West Indian trade.” Therein lies the main problem with The Flagship Hope: it never mentions Lopez’s involvement in the slave trade.

Lopez’s outfitting of slave ships is no secret; historians have documented it, and much is made of it on antisemitic Web sites (to which I will not link). Readers of The Flagship Hope who know something about the real Aaron Lopez are bound to approach this issue with varying degrees of sensitivity to historical context that may temper their disappointment or anger. Unfortunately, readers who know Aaron Lopez only through Alexander’s novel aren’t given a chance to determine how much less they might have liked the man. Strangely, Alexander casts Lopez as a freedom fighter who justifies his own reluctance to fight in the Revolutionary War:

And what of liberty? Once Aaron had reproached himself for not taking up a musket. Now he saw clearly that all who worked for freedom, to the full measure of their means, even those who could offer only their suffering, had the proud right to call themselves her children. As Aaron looked across the icy field, he knew that liberty had many sons.

Alexander never saw even his worst characters as inhuman or monstrous, and his task in The Flagship Hope is, of course, to focus on Lopez’s experience as an immigrant, merchant, and patriot. But when a hasty epilogue documents Lopez’s premature death in quicksand at the age of 50, Alexander offers no praise, only the enigmatic graveside prayers of friends and family to “hear the voice of Aaron.” He seems relieved to be rid of a figure whose life story is more informative than it is inspirational, and I can’t really blame him. After enjoying the story of Alexander’s previous Jewish hero, August Bondi, and his principled fight against slavery, a novel about an 18th-century merchant that never mentions the slave trade is a strange and uncomfortable read.