I picture history as an enormous and intricate spider’s web. Its sticky strands come down from everywhere in our pasts and catch us in a world of complex twists and turns.
You might compare a historical novelist, then, to a person who would place a fly right in the middle of that web. But that might assume that events turn out badly for the fly.
I’m not going to give away the ending of Jonathan Rabb’s new book. But I will say that the fly in it escapes, several times, in moving and unexpected ways.
Among the Living, the historical novelist’s sixth book, is a thought-provoking tale about Southern Jews, the Holocaust, Jim Crow, otherness, acceptance and other big themes.
But it’s really a gripping story about one man, a death camp survivor, as he discovers his path through sweeping changes in his own life and in the world around him.
“I’ve never understood in my books when people say, ‘You have so many twists and turns,’” Rabb says. “Come and live my life with my two kids, my wife, my teaching schedule and so forth, for two weeks, and you will see just as many twists and turns.”
Rabb’s movements aren’t as epic. But the SCAD writing professor has changed his life a time or two, something that’s informed his work. The biggest change was moving South.
Growing up in a Jewish household in New Jersey, Rabb often heard about Southern Jews. They practiced the same religion. But they were just a little different.
“To discover Jews who assert themselves as Southerners first… this astounded me,” he says. “But it makes perfect sense once you get to know the community here.”
The book’s protagonist, a Czech writer named Yitzak, comes to 1947 Savannah also to be astounded. Blacks are treated like dirt. And Jews don’t get along with each other.
“It was a fractured community,” Rabb says of the strict Reform-Conservative-Orthodox split of Savannah Jews then. “Plus, it allowed me to have a little bit of Romeo and Juliet.”
It just wouldn’t be a good book if Yitzak fell in love with the “right type” of Jew. But to him, the distinctions were meaningless. The SS didn’t care what kind of Jew you were.
Yitzak’s American love is threatened when his Czech betrothed, assumed dead, is found in Virginia. The way he writes, Rabb really makes you think, “What would I do?”
“He has a choice between the promise of a real future with this young American woman or the safety of a shared despair with this woman from the camp,” Rabb says.
And despair is always lurking beneath the surface in Among the Living. It comes up unexpectedly in vivid death camp flashbacks, just like it does… among the living.
This is the first time in a while that Rabb has tackled a subject where the history is still alive, although less each day. His previous books were set in Germany decades earlier.
He remembers his own cousin and their parents, who miraculously survived the camps. And that’s why he says that this book felt personal to him.
“It’s taken me a long time to write a book like this,” he says, even though it’s his shortest work. “I wanted to create a character that has some hope coming out of [the Holocaust].”
And hope is sometimes hard to imagine. But we always must imagine it because spiders are spinning every day.
Look for the book’s connections to water. Look for how the word “kindness” evolves in it. Look for historic Savannah cameos. Just look for it in local bookstores.