Book Bub Valentine’s Day challenge – top ten literary crushes!

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To mark Valentine’s Day, Book Bub posted a list of top book crushes.  I’d never heard of some of them, probably because I don’t read fantasy novels, but the ones I did know were a mixed bag.  Heathcliff – the man who kidnaps young girls and forces them into marrying their cousins.  Mr Rochester – the man who keeps his wife locked up in the attic and tries to commit bigamy with the governess.  Seriously?!  But Gilbert Blythe, Rhett Butler and Mr Darcy – ah, that’s a bit more like it!   Atticus Finch – well, I suppose he gets marks for integrity, but he’s not really all that interesting.  They were all blokes, and there didn’t seem to be a corresponding list of women, which was a bit weird, but maybe they think it’s only blokes who attract admiration from readers!

OK, I need to think of a list of ten.  Excluding people who actually existed, which rules out the major characters of quite a lot of my books!   And, seeing as I can’t make decisions and would never manage to put them in order, this is going to have to be in alphabetical order.

  1. Gilbert Blythe from Anne of Green Gables. Gilbert seems to have made most of the other lists I’ve seen, as well!
  2. Rhett Butler from Gone With The Wind. OK, he’s very annoying, and I would probably get on much better with Ashley Wilkes, who usually had his head in the clouds and his nose in a book, but I love the way Rhett’s always there when he’s needed. There’s a lot to be said for that.
  3. Prince Caspian from The Chronicles of Narnia. Preferably as played by Ben Barnes in the film. So much nicer than Peter or Edmund!
  4. Guy Charlton from the Sadler’s Wells books. Everyone laughs at me for this!   OK, teenage Guy, in the Marjorie and Patience books, is a bit of a pain, but Guy as an adult, sorting out Nigel for bullying Jane, rescuing Jane when she gets lost on a Scottish mountain in New Year’s Eve, and then telling her that he quite understands that she’s putting her career before him (unlike Sebastian Scott, who gets in a huge strop when Veronica prioritises her career) … if I was doing this in order, Guy would definitely be at or near the top of the list. And everyone laughs at me for this.
  5. Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. OK, another one who can be annoying, but he’s also there when he’s needed. He’s also a wonderful brother. Oh, and he owns Pemberley. Shame about the first name, though. OK, I know it was his mother’s maiden name, but what did Elizabeth call him in private? Fitz? Will?
  6. Angelo Ibanez from the Sadler’s Wells books.   The Sadler’s Wells books are very romantic!   And I need a Spaniard on the list 🙂 . Angelo, unlike his annoying friend Sebastian, is a perfect gentleman who is polite to everyone and never sarcastic … and he comes to Caroline’s rescue when her life seems to be a mess, and sweeps her off her feet into a new world of personal and professional success. My two favourite Sadler’s Wells girls are Mariella and Caroline, but I think Caroline edges it because I sympathise with her weight traumas!   Having been the fat kid, Caroline becomes beautiful and glamorous at the age of fifteen, when her puppy fat magically disappears. For years, I hoped that that would happen to me. It never did! But that all got bound up in my head with the idea of being swept off your feet with someone like Angelo, so I’ve always liked him. Even though he isn’t Guy.
  7. Count Sergei Nikolayevitch Kirov from the Kirov saga. This is the first Count Sergei, who dies in the first book, not his half-brother, who dies in the second book!   Well, I’ve got to have a Russian in here somewhere, haven’t I?! This is a really melancholy Russian story – Sergei is in love with Anna, his sisters’ English governess, and asks her to marry him. He adores her, and he’s so sweet, but she turns him down. He then finds out that she’s actually in love with his father. His stepmother conveniently dies, and Anna and the father live happily ever after, but poor Sergei is killed in the Napoleonic Wars. It’s very sad 😦 .
  8. Orry Main from North and South. Preferably as played by the late, great Patrick Swayze in the TV series. All right, as his life spirals downwards he walks around looking a mess and drinks too much, but nobody’s perfect, and I do sympathise with that feeling of your life getting out of control. He’s the perfect honourable gentleman – like Ashley Wilkes is meant to be, but without Ashley’s wimpishness
  9. Dr Jem Russell from the Chalet School books. Not only does he take on Madge’s sister, wards, nieces, nephews and sundry other hangers-on, but he’s fine with Madge continuing to run her own business after they’re married – as Rhett Butler is with Scarlett. Best of all, when Madge is upset because people are making unkind remarks about her weight, and decides that she needs to go on a diet, he tells her that she looks fine as she is. That earns him a huge amount of gold stars. I have heard so many nasty remarks about weight over the years that I remember every time anyone’s ever said anything complimentary to me, even really random things like the time I asked a bloke in a newsagent’s in town if he had any sugar free Polo mints and he said I didn’t need to worry about having sugar free stuff. Bless!   I remember all the nasty remarks, of which there’ve been far more, as well, so I love Jem for telling Madge that she looked fine as she was
  10. Captain Frederick Wentworth from Persuasion. I love the way that he goes back to Anne, his first love, when there are younger and prettier girls after him. He’s lovely.

There.  Ten!   A lot of my favourite books don’t feature on this list, because they don’t seem to have decent heroes.  I’m not sure what that says about anything!    And, if anyone does happen to be reading this, please make your own suggestions!   Just not Heathcliff or Mr Rochester, please

 

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Castles Burning by Magda Denes

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I’m revisiting Hungarian history at the moment, and this particular book also ties in with Holocaust Memorial Day (which is tomorrow).  It’s a different sort of Holocaust memoir, partly because the situation in Budapest was different to that anywhere else, and partly because, whilst it’s aimed at adults, it’s told from the point of view of a child.  Magda Denes somehow manages to be very entertaining whilst never shying away from the details of life in the “international ghetto” in Budapest, the militant secularist Zionist resistance group with which her brother was involved, and – over a third of the book – her time as a Displaced Person once the war was over.  She felt for many years that she wasn’t entitled to talk about her experiences, because of a sense that only those who’d been survived concentration camps or massacres had that right; and she only wrote this book when she was dying.

I read a newspaper article last year, which sparked off a lot of discussion in a Facebook book group to which I belong, saying that it was inappropriate for Anne Frank to have become the face of the Holocaust (for lack of a better way of putting it), because her diary isn’t about concentration camps.  The author seemed to have completely missed the point of The Diary of a Young Girl – that it humanises all those horrific statistics about the numbers of people killed, by showing that they were all just ordinary people.  Anne Frank wrote about squabbles with family members, and about fancying Peter van Daan, just as any other teenager might have done, because she should have been just like any other teenager.  Likewise Magda’s observations about family dynamics, school, and so on.

Holocaust memoirs don’t have to be about concentration camps.  Many Holocaust victims died in massacres, in forced labour battalions, or in ghettoes.   Survivors’ experiences are valid whether they survived camps, ghettoes or forced labour, or whether they went into hiding.  And they’re valid no matter what group of persecuted people they come from: the current right-wing Polish government seems to think that it’s some sort of competition, which it assuredly isn’t.  No-one’s comparing different experiences: it’s not a question of comparison, and it’s certainly not a competition.  It’s very sad that Magda Denes felt unable for so long to speak out.  And, from what she said, many other people in similar situations felt the same.

Following Prince William’s visit to the grave of his great-grandmother, Alice of Battenberg, Princess Andrew of Greece, last year, there was quite a bit of talk in the media last year about the Jewish family whom she’d helped to hide in wartime Athens.  When I went to Lithuania, I had a long chat with a tour guide (I don’t think she was used to British tourists being au fait with Lithuanian history.  I’m weird!) whose grandmother had hidden a Jewish family during the Nazi occupation.  In Assisi, one of my favourite places, tens of Jews were saved by being hidden in the Basilica of St Francis.  There are a lot of these stories, but they aren’t often told.

They usually involve heroism, on the part of those who risked their own safety to hide those at risk, and sometimes, where families were separated, on the part of those who sent children away to try to save their lives, knowing that they’d probably never see them again.  And, when thinking about the Budapest ghetto, the first name that usually comes to mind is that of Raoul Wallenberg, who saved the lives of tens of thousands of people by issuing protective passports and arranging sheltered accommodation under Swedish protection.

Distressing as any sort of Holocaust story is, these tales of heroism are also quite uplifting.  The way in which this one starts is anything but.  Magda Denes came from a well-to-do Jewish family in Budapest.  Her father was a well-respected publisher.  In 1939, fearing for his safety, he liquidated the family’s assets and fled to America, leaving his wife and two young children behind, with nothing.  He was supposed to be sending for them, or at least sending them money, but he never did.  It was brave of her to write about that.  You don’t expect stories like that … and yet, of course, the fact that he was a complete bastard, who scarpered with all the family’s money and left his wife and kids to face their fate, didn’t make him any less of a refugee and potential victim of persecution.   There’s a lot to think about, with this book.

Magda, her mother and her brother moved in with her mother’s parents, who weren’t well-off and weren’t overly pleased at having three extra people in their small home. At this point, no-one in Budapest was actually either in hiding or in a ghetto.  However, Hungary was allied with Nazi Germany, and, in 1938, began to introduce anti-Jewish laws – around 5% of all Hungarians, and around 23% of the population of Budapest, being Jewish.  The Hungarians got an extremely raw deal when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dismembered after the First World War, and that, along with fear of the Soviet Union, explains although obviously doesn’t excuse the Nazi alliance. The laws became more and more restrictive as time went on

In 1941, foreign Jews living in Hungary, mainly refugees from Poland, were deported to Ukraine.  It’s thought that they numbered around 16,000 of the 23,600 people massacred by German, Hungarian and Ukrainian forces at Kamianets-Podilskyi.  Many Jews were killed, along with many Orthodox Serbs and Romani people, were killed by Hungarian forces who occupied Vojvodina, either killed outright or in appalling conditions in the copper mines, and many Hungarian Jews also died in forced labour battalions.

The book didn’t really say much about this, or about anything that was going on between 1939 and October 1944 – but, from the viewpoint of a small child, there probably wasn’t much to say.  There was an interesting interlude in which Magda was diagnosed with TB and sent to a sanatorium, where treatment included eating as much fatty food as possible, lying outside whilst wrapped in blankets and receiving blood transfusions from her mother.  She made a full recovery.  There was quite a bit about food shortages, but, other than that, nothing was really specific to the war, never mind to the Holocaust … but always with the background of the increasing restrictions.  Normal and yet abnormal.

Despite what had happened in 1941, the Hungarian government didn’t allow the deportation of Hungarian Jews to the camps, until relations between the Hungarian authorities and Nazi Germany deteriorated, and the Nazis invaded Hungary in March 1944.  Deportations began in May 1944 … but not from Budapest.  Jews in Budapest were forced to live in designated houses, marked by yellow stars and horrendously overcrowded, but not deported.  It’s not entirely clear what was going on, but it is clear that, by this time, reports about what was going on in the death camps were circulating around the world.  It seems that there were plans for mass deportations of Jews from Budapest in the summer of 1944, but that they never took place, after intervention from, amongst others, President Roosevelt and King Gustav V of Sweden.  What was going on?  Had the Hungarian authorities decided that the Nazis were going to lose the war, and were trying to avoid making themselves look any worse than they already did?  And why was Budapest treated differently to the rest of Hungary?  It’s thought that around a third of those who died at Auschwitz-Birkenau were from Hungary, and yet the deportations from Budapest itself were stopped.   Was it just a matter of timing, in terms of external intervention?

In October 1944, the Hungarian government negotiated a ceasefire with the Soviets, to which the Nazis responded by facilitating a takeover by the far-right Arrow Cross party.  Most of the book is set from this time onwards.  They forced the Jews of Budapest into a ghetto, and began deportations from Budapest to labour camps and death camps.  There were also mass shootings of Jews on the banks of the Danube.  This has been in the news lately: during some work being done in the area, bones were found, almost certainly those of the victims of those massacres.  Israeli divers have begun an operation to recover the bones, planning to give them a funeral, but some Hungarian Jewish community leaders are unhappy about it and feel that the bones should be left undisturbed.

Even before the Arrow Cross takeover, a number of foreign diplomats – Swedish businessman Raoul Wallenberg is the best known, but there were others too, from Switzerland, Spain and Portugal, and Rudolf Kastner, a Jewish Hungarian lawyer who bribed Adolf Eichmann to let 1,600 Jews leave Budapest for Switzerland  – had been trying to try to save as many Hungarian Jews as they could, by issuing them with passports, and enabling them to live in houses which had been declared part of their embassies and were therefore not legally Hungarian territory – the so-called “International Ghetto”.

This formed a big part of the book, and it’s well worth reading because it is something unique to Budapest.  Magda was initially taken to stay in a house under the protection of the Spanish Red Cross.  Tragically, it was later raided and those there killed, but, by then, she’d been taken to stay with family friends.  En route, she and her mother were shot at by Arrow Cross men who knew her mother from her former job and recognised them: this apparently wasn’t uncommon in Budapest.  She then joined her mother, brother and other relatives at a building under the protection of the Swiss consulate.  It’s written from the prospective of a child, and she was more concerned about why they’d all gone there without her than anything else, but we then learned what was going on there.  It wasn’t just a safe house – not that it was all that safe, with 3,600 people crowded into a building which was only meant to house 400, food short, disease rife and the city under siege.  It was the headquarters of an organisation trying to help people to escape.

I’m not particularly au fait with the Hashomer Hatzair movement.  Apparently it’s still a well-known Jewish youth organisation, operating in many countries, but it hasn’t got any branches in the UK so the name isn’t really known here.  It (thank you, Wikipedia!) began life in Austro-Hungarian-ruled Galicia just before the First World War, and became popular in many parts of Eastern and Central Europe, partly as one of the many Scout/Guide type groups which became so popular in many places in the inter-war years and partly as a Zionist socialist group, with wings of it affiliated to far left organisations.  It was only one of many Zionist groups, and one of the more extreme ones, but, as I say every time I get involved in a discussion on the Middle Eastern situation, Zionism was originally largely a left-wing, secular movement: the idea of it as a right-wing, religious movement is very recent.  Anyway, that’s another story.

This group was heavily involved in organising the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and, in Romania (where many of its leaders were executed), Lithuania and Hungary, in gathering intelligence and trying to help Jews to escape or to go into hiding.  Magda’s mother and brother became very involved in it, doing work such as forging identity documents and warning people of planned deportations.  Later on, we saw Magda’s mother and aunt carrying two sets of identity papers, one set showing them as Jews and the other as Catholics, and fumbling in their bags, trying to decide which set to use.  The grim humour of this book makes it very readable.

The work they were doing was extremely brave and heroic, and saved many lives.  However, the organisation itself sounds quite dictatorial.  The “committee” organised everything that went on in this building, and everyone had to do as they said.  And their views were quite militant: I gather that organisation’s anti-religious views cause issues between it and other Zionist organisations even now.  Although the building was under Swiss protection, at one point the Nazis shot at committee members, and a woman was killed.  Someone wanted to hold a memorial service for her, and asked for volunteers to form the quota of ten post-barmitzvah males without whom the Jewish prayers for the dead aren’t supposed to be said.  Magda’s grandfather and many other men wanted to step forward, but didn’t dare do so for fear of angering the committee, who didn’t want any form of religious service being held.

Without wanting to write a great long essay about the Dreyfus affair and Russian narodniki and religion being the opium of the people and all the rest of it, I do get the idea of Zionism and secularism … but that sort of militant secularism, making people feel afraid to hold a religious service when they’d just suffered a bereavement, if that was what they wanted to do, just sounds very … Soviet?   But this organisation saved many lives – and, after the war, helped Magda and the other surviving members of her family again and again, to leave Budapest, and during the time they spent in Paris, and even when they were in Bilbao, waiting to take ship across the Atlantic.  There are a lot of nuances and complexities in this book, right from the beginning when the publisher who’d bravely spoken out against the Nazis spinelessly abandoned his wife and kids.

Again, it’s very unclear what was going on, but it seems that, in January 1945, plans were afoot for the German troops in Hungary to murder all the remaining inhabitants of the main ghetto, and that this was stopped – according to some reports, because Raoul Wallenberg told the German commander that, if it went ahead he’d ensure that he was tried for war crimes once the war was over.  Other reports say that it was Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian businessman posing as a Spanish diplomat, who saved the Budapest ghetto.  It really is frustrating that we can’t seem to find out.  Nor can we find out exactly what happened to Raoul Wallenberg, who disappeared – probably executed by the Soviets on allegations of espionage.

Meanwhile, Budapest was under siege by the Red Army, and also undergoing intense aerial bombardment. The ghetto was liberated by the Red Army in January 1945, and the city of Budapest surrendered unconditionally in the February.  The behaviour of the Red Army in Hungary was beyond appalling, with thousands of women raped and all able-bodied men conscripted for forced labour.  However, the lives of as many as 90,000 people in the Budapest Ghetto were saved.  But it was too late for Magda’s brother, captured and shot dead a week earlier.  So close to survival, but he didn’t make it.  Her cousin lived to see the liberation, but the Red Army sent him to take a message behind German lines, and he never came back.  Her grandfather died of an infection, too weak to fight it after years of poor nutrition.  Her mother, aunt and grandmother survived.  So did her uncle and another cousin, who survived Mauthausen.

This was still only halfway through the book.  With Budapest in chaos, Magda and her mother and aunt decided to leave.  They got on a train, any train, and ended up in Debrecen.  The book used “Russian” instead of “Soviet” all the way through.  Most American authors do that.  It really, really, annoys me!  That didn’t go well, so they returned to Budapest.  And, still only eleven years old, she went back to school, and life was supposed to return to some sort of normality, but it couldn’t.

She does an excellent job of describing how she couldn’t cope with normality.  She didn’t want to read, or go to the pictures, because she’d get lost in the world of a book or a film and then it’d all hit her again afterwards.  And her mother felt oppressed by the new communist regime, and decided that they had to leave.  Going to Palestine was ruled out because, at that point, only very few immigrants were being allowed in.  Zionist contacts got them false papers, and they were able to reach the American sector of Austria and register as Displaced Persons.  There were millions of, maybe as many as twenty million, Displaced Persons in post-war Europe, maybe more.  Most were able to return to their countries of origin – or were forcibly repatriated.  Over a million couldn’t, because of fear of persecution.  Displaced Persons camps were set up.  Magda and her mother, aunt and grandmother found themselves in a camp in Bavaria.

Life in the camp … it reminded me a bit of things I’d read about internment camps on the Isle of Man, except that obviously this was in far different circumstances.  The people there became a community. They organised a school – although this meant Magda learning Yiddish, as most of the other pupils were Yiddish-speaking.  Incidentally, the book could have done with a glossary: a lot of Hungarian, Yiddish and Hebrew terms were used, which not all readers would have understood, and they organised variety shows. And she was OK with that.  It was normality that she couldn’t cope with.  Eventually – and why did the useless father apparently do nothing to try to get them visas for America? – some relatives who, for some reason, had ended up in Cuba, gave then affidavits (presumably guarantees in terms of financial support?), and they were then taken to Paris, to wait for full visas.  It all seems to have been very complicated.

Her use of language is wonderful, and her description of being a Displaced Person is in some ways more powerful than her description of life in the ghetto.  She couldn’t deal with being in Paris, a city that the Nazis had been persuaded not to destroy, because it was too grand, and too beautiful, and people were living too normally: she couldn’t process it.  She was sent to school and made a friend, but the friendship didn’t survive the other girl seeing the chaos in which the Denes family were living, in a hostel full of Displaced Persons.  Silly expression, isn’t it, “Displaced Persons”?  It sounds so mundane.  The grim humour came into it again – she remarked on the number of books showing life as an émigré in Paris to be glamorous and exciting.

Struggling at her French school because of the language barrier, she was sent to a school for Hungarian émigrés, but it was a disaster.  As much as she knew that none of the children there were responsible for her brother’s death and everything else that had happened in Budapest, she couldn’t cope with being around Hungarians who weren’t Jewish, because they seemed to represent the people who’d torn her life apart.

This is an incredibly sensitive area, even now.  Maybe especially now, with the rise of the far right in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere.  No-one’s trying to point the finger, to make any suggestions of collective responsibility, and certainly not to blame anyone now for things that happened in the 1930s and 1940s, but, despite what the Eastern Bloc regimes in particular tried to teach, it wasn’t all about Nazi Germany.  Also, this was why so many people couldn’t go back to their places of origin.  Some did, but many felt that they couldn’t.

Eventually, the visas came through.  There was a nice interlude in Bilbao, where, the civil war long over and Spain having been neutral during the Second World War, there were no food shortages: there were some fascinating descriptions of the family’s reactions to seeing the food stalls in the markets.  And then the ship across the Atlantic.  It docked in New York.  Magda was eventually to end up there, but not yet, and, with the idea of America, the land of the free, in her mind, she longed to disembark, but knew that she couldn’t.  Then, bizarrely, her father came to visit them – and just moaned that New York was full of crime.

The book ended with their arrival in Cuba.  I’d like to have known more, about how they got on in Cuba, and about how she eventually ended up in New York, but it was a positive ending.  They’d survived.  A new life lay ahead.   And she’d thought her story didn’t deserve to be told.  It did.  It really, really did.

Spanish Lavender by Joan Fallon

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I was hoping that this was going to be about the International Brigades; but unfortunately it was just a rather silly story, poorly-written and littered with irritating errors (“expatriate” was repeatedly spelt “ex-patriot”!), about a girl running off to take photos of the Spanish Civil War and getting involved with two men and a baby.  However, it did raise the never-ending question, very relevant in a week in which there’ve been reports of Syrian children dying of cold and hunger in refugee camps, of whether or not the international community should intervene in civil wars.

I’m not sure that the Life on Marbs idea of British expatriates (or indeed “ex-patriots”) living in the Marbella/Estepona/San Pedro area was really a thing in the 1930s.  However, OK, there would have been some Britons living there – although someone should really tell the author that they would not have referred to themselves as “Brits”, a term which didn’t exist until the Second World War.  Amongst them is our heroine, Elizabeth Marshall, a young woman in her 20s from a well-to-do middle-class family, living with her parents and brother.  With civil war raging and the Nationalists about to take Malaga, it’s decided that all British citizens in the area should be evacuated to Gibraltar, and then to Britain.  The evacuation of non-Spanish nationals was certainly true enough.

The dialogue’s poor, the characters are wooden, and silly mistakes such as the spelling of  the Spanish housekeeper’s name as “Conception” rather than “Concepcion” are annoying, but the book does make some good points with its descriptions of the bombing of Malaga by the Nationalists, with German and Italian assistance, and the desperate attempts of civilians to try to escape from a city bordered by water and mountains.

When the Marshalls reach the coast, they wait for a ship … and Elizabeth decides to run away, to take photos of what’s going on.  It’s supposed to sound brave and heroic, but it’s not really very convincing.  However, she gets to Malaga, where she rescues a baby who’s been abandoned in the street.  This is presumably meant to be very poignant, but the storylines just don’t work very well.  She meets up with a Spanish aristocrat, Juan, and an Englishman, Alex … and Juan checks her into a posh hotel so that she can get milk for the baby (as you do).  Then the baby dies anyway.  I’m not sure what the point of that storyline was.  And Elizabeth and Juan become lovers.

They all decide that they need to get out of Malaga, and head for Almeria.  En route, they’re caught up in a brutal attack by Franco’s forces on civilian refugees.  It’s thought that up to 5,000 people were killed in the attack, and many other citizens of Malaga were raped and murdered when the Nationalists took the city.  German and Italian forces bombed the refugees from the air, and Nationalist ships attacked them from the sea.  They couldn’t get away: there was no means of escape.  This isn’t a very good book, but this is something that’s largely been forgotten, and the book’s coverage of it is pretty accurate.  Norman Bethune, a Canadian doctor working with the Republicans, did indeed rescue as many of the injured as he could.  As far as the story goes, Juan, who’s been badly injured, is taken to Almeria by Bethune.  Elizabeth and Alex follow on foot.  When they reach the city, he’s nowhere to be found, and they’re left to assume that he’s died and been buried, alongside many others, in an unmarked grave. However, the reader learns that he’s still alive and has joined the Republican army, hoping that Elizabeth, who’d refused to leave without him, will go home to Britain and safety.

Then, just as it’s getting interesting, we suddenly jump forward to the 21st century!  We learn that – why does this always happen, in books?! – Elizabeth, having duly returned to her family, had found out that she was expecting Juan’s baby, and had accepted Alex’s offer of marriage.  It could have been quite good.  Elizabeth’s photos could have been published and she could have made a name for herself.  Juan could have turned up a few years later – and we learn that Alex went back to Spain, found out that Juan was alive, and never told Elizabeth.

But we don’t get any of that.  Instead, we get a rather boring story about how, after they’re all dead, Elizabeth and Juan’s granddaughter Kate finds out that Alex wasn’t her biological grandfather, goes to Spain, and, within about five minutes, has found Juan’s surviving relatives and been welcomed into the bosom of his family (who’d tried to cover up the fact that he existed, because they were Nationalists).  There are a lot of references to golf.  Kate meets two different men, but neither relationship is really developed properly.

None of the storylines are developed properly, really; and, as I’ve said, the characters are wooden and the dialogue poorly-written.  But this is the first time that I’ve ever come across a novel which covers this little-known massacre: Spanish Civil War novels in English are usually set in Catalunya, and usually refer to the massacre in Guernica, in the Basque country, and never mention Andalucia.

We’re told that Elizabeth is angry and distressed about why other countries are doing nothing to help, especially when there are British ships at Gibraltar.  (We know now that the Gibraltarian authorities secretly aided the Nationalists – not during the massacre, obviously, but in general.).  There was a lot of debate at the time, especially in Britain, France and the USA, about whether or not to intervene.  A Non-Intervention Committee was formed, and no-one was supposed to be getting involved, except as observers and to protect international shipping, but Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and to some extent Salazar’s Portugal all aided the Nationalists, whilst the Soviet Union and to some extent Poland and Mexico provided support to the Republicans.

There was huge international press coverage of the war, and of course the International Brigades – who are now seen as being quite romantic – were formed.  Opinion in Britain and elsewhere was deeply divided.  It was feared that involvement by foreign powers could spark a pan-European war.  And “boots on the ground” in other countries’ civil wars … well, think of Korea, of Vietnam, of Iraq.  It never ends well.  But can it ever be OK to stand by and do nothing when you know full well that civilians are suffering, horrifically.  We know what’s going on in Syria.  We know what’s going on in Yemen.  We know what’s going on in the sadly misnamed Democratic Republic of Congo.  There aren’t any answers, but the Spanish Civil War was the first time after the formation of the League of Nations that the subject came up.  The war killed about 500,000 people, similar to the estimated death toll in the Syrian Civil War.

There are no answers, but there are a lot of questions.  This book isn’t very good, but it does ask some of those questions, and make you think about them.

A Fortunate Term by Angela Brazil (Facebook group reading challenge)

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Angela Brazil very briefly attended my old school, when her family first moved to Manchester.  Her horrified mother withdrew her on discovering that the girls there behaved with “perkiness”, bought sweets from corner shops and even, horror of horrors, ran along the pavements.  There was not one person considered suitable to be asked chez Brazil for tea.  Good job that Mrs Brazil never knew the place in my day, some of the language we used and all the complaints that the bus company made about us!  Dear Angela was consequently sent to a very select establishment, known as a “ladies’ college” rather than anything as plebeian as a “school”.  So I think I can be forgiven for not having the most positive of images of her – but I read this as part of a reading challenge, and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it, and there was actually very little snobbishness in it.

Having said which, I was spitting feathers after reading the first page, which involved a girl who addressed her mum as “Muvvie” (seriously – Muvvie?!) and a lot of negative remarks about the evils of northern industrial landscapes.  Dark satanic mill type stuff.  Ooh!  If there’s one thing I can’t be doing with, it’s people making negative comments about northern industrial landscapes!   OK, there are lots of things I can’t be doing with, but that’s certainly one of them.  It was particularly galling given that Angela Brazil’s dad (or maybe that should be Farvie?) worked in the Lancashire cotton industry, a fact which Angela tended conveniently to ignore.  However, our friend and her sister – Mavis and Merle – didn’t have to stay amongst the dark satanic mills too long, because they were off to stay with their uncle in “Devonshire”, land of witches and pixies.  After that, they pretty much shut up making negative comments about the North.  Hey, they even acknowledged that we have our own mythical creatures – boggarts.

Off to Devon.  It’s interesting how Girls’ Own authors seem to have this idea of the Celtic Fringe (I just mistyped that as “Celtic Fridge”) – yes, I know that Devon isn’t Cornwall and isn’t generally classed as being Celtic, but I’m not sure that Angela Brazil did, and Elinor M Brent-Dyer seemed to think that the two rival counties were actually interchangeable! – as being all fey and mystical.  I suppose it was a combination of the Celtic Revival and the interest in the Scottish Highlands brought about by Queen Victoria and Sir Walter Scott.  Clotted cream got mentioned several times as well – although it was referred to as “scalded cream”.  I am a big fan of clotted cream, but have my scones the Cornish way, jam first!  And there was a local festival to mark a local saint’s day.

Anyway, off they went to Devon, to stay with the uncle, who, like the dad, was a doctor.  Girls’ Own authors are very keen on doctors.  Darrell’s dad in Malory Towers is a doctor, the eponymous heroine’s husband in the Dimsie books is a doctor, and all good Chalet School girls and mistresses get to marry doctors.  I got a bit annoyed at a snooty comment about “trippers” dropping litter, but it was only the one comment.

Like a lot of Angela Brazil books but unlike a lot of other Girls’ Own books, this one involved a day school, and there were two main storylines – one about the school, and the nasty girl who had the headmistress and the other teacher (the unfortunately named “Miss Fanny”) fooled into thinking that she was all sweetness and light, and one outside school hours, involving a mysterious boy called Bevis, who’d been brought up by foster parents after his mum had dropped dead at a local hotel without leaving any clue as to who she was.  As you do.

Contrary to the image of Angela Brazil books being snobby, it was stressed that Bevis, despite his humble upbringing, was a really nice lad, and that it was fine for the girls to be friends with him.  We were clearly meant to approve of him, but not of the rich boy whose family were renting the local squire’s house (the squire, an elderly man with no heirs, being abroad).  Well, OK, there was some snobbishness there, in that the nouveau riche family were clearly to be detested, and you just knew that the poor-but-noble-minded Bevis was going to turn out to be the scion of some upper-class family, but there certainly wasn’t the sort of snobbishness that you get from, say, Julian in the Famous Five books.

Nor was there any of the gushing that people associate with Angela Brazil books.  None of the girls went around kissing each other, hugging each other, developing grand passions for the prefects, writing soppy notes, bursting into tears every five minutes or anything else along those lines.  Even the language wasn’t that bad.  There was some strange slang, such as “Judkins”, but nothing too daft.  Anyway, all schoolkids use weird slang; and, for some reason, the word for “silly person” (which is what “Judkins” appears to mean) tends to change every term or so.  We went through wally, plonker (thank you, Only Fools and Horses), berk, prat, dork (thank you, Neighbours), derbrain, dweeb, dormant, nob, neb and assorted other terms, none of which were really any worse than “Judkins” 🙂 .  And some of the descriptions of the countryside were extremely well-written and a genuine joy to read.  Someone did get extremely ill from being out in the rain, but even Jane Austen uses that trope.

Needless to say, the nasty girl, one Opal Earnshaw – a very northern-sounding name for a Devonian! – eventually showed her true colours, and the teachers saw her for what she was.  Equally needless to say, it turned out that Bevis was the long-lost heir to the local squire, the house being rented by the nouveau riche types (the son of whom turned over a new leaf and became quite a nice bad) and most of the other land and property in the area.

So it was all a bit cheesy and predictable, but, OK, I wasn’t expecting it to be deep and meaningful.  The main characters were genuinely likeable, and it certainly didn’t fulfil the stereotype of the early school story that gets mercilessly parodied in something like Daisy Pulls It Off.  It’d been a good few years since I last read an Angela Brazil book: I must read a few more of them.

The Chalet School Annexe by Adrianne Fitzpatrick

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This is a fill-in that’d been waiting to be written!   It’s very frustrating that EBD, having set up the Annexe and located some of the main characters there, never showed us anything of Juliet’s time as a mistress, Juliet and Grizel working together, Madge’s temporary return to teaching, or Robin’s maturing from a rather irritating “Engelkind” to the girl who braved a crowd of baying Nazis to try to help Herr Goldmann.   Robin’s the central character in this book, which I think is probably what most readers would have expected.

(Although this is set in the 1930s, and therefore classes as being historical even though there’s no history as such in it, nothing I’m saying will make much sense to anyone who doesn’t read Chalet School books.  I’m just indulging myself by writing it.  It’s “Twixmas”, after all!)

Jo barely features.  Hooray!  I don’t dislike teenage Jo, but I do dislike the way that, as the series progresses, she’s placed at the centre of everything, even in situations which shouldn’t involve her at all. I’m very fond of Madge and am always sorry that she’s shoved into the background, quite probably so as to leave centre stage free for Jo; so it’s great to see her involvement here … although it can’t have lasted for long, as Sybil was born at the end of the following term.  There’s such a nice scene in which Madge gently ribs Juliet about being so keen to make the Annexe seem like the Chalet School that she insists on referring to a tiny little room as “Hall”, and it really does get across that lovely lightness and humour that we get in the early books, before the School starts taking itself and its institutions too seriously.

Juliet, despite her youth and inexperience, manages things very well, although we do see her being nervous early on.  Strangely, there’s not a single mention of Donal, or the general fact that Juliet will only be teaching until she and he can afford to get married.  I can’t stand the man and wish Juliet had sent him packing, but it does seem a bit odd that there’s no reference to him.  Oh well.  The interaction between Juliet and Robin comes across very nicely, and Gertrud’s absence – we were originally told that “Grizel and Gertrud” would be helping Juliet, but then Gertrud never appeared!  – is satisfactorily explained as being due to a ski-ing accident.  I have such great admiration for the way in which fill-in authors work their way round EBD-isms 🙂 .

I’m sorry that Grizel, although it’s nice to see her getting a chance to teach Games as well as music, is portrayed unfavourably, though.  I’m sure it’s exactly what EBD would have done, because she always seemed keen to insist that Grizel disliked Robin and was jealous of her, but I think Grizel gets a raw deal in the later Tyrol books.  Surely anyone would be upset if they invited an old friend for a catch-up and just got “Can’t.  Where’s my Robin?” in response, without so much as a “Sorry” or “Maybe another time”, or if they had to hear of an old friend’s engagement second-hand?  Grizel put herself in considerable danger to rescue Robin in Head Girl, and that gets forgotten about.  As I said, I’m sure the way Grizel’s written here is the way EBD would have written her, had she written a book about the Annexe, so it’s no criticism of Adrianne Fitzpatrick, but I do think it’s a shame.

Most of it’s about the girls, though, as you would expect, not the staff.   EBD never named most of the twenty-two pupils of the Annexe, so a fill-in author was free to guess at them.  It’s great to see Lilias Carr included: we hear very little about the school-age pupils at the San.  I’d like to have seen more of Stacie, but I suppose there’s only so much you can fit into a book of this length.

The main plot is one which EBD liked and used several times – in New, Bride, Oberland and Feud -, that of a group of Chalet School girls and a group of girls from another school/other schools having to find a way to come together.  Seeing as EBD used it no fewer than four times, it’s hardly original, but it’s good to see Robin and Amy, two of the central characters of the early days, at the heart of it, along with Signa.

There are also a whole load of minor plots.  We see, very realistically, that some girls aren’t at all happy with being moved to the Annexe.  EBD, who didn’t like to criticise either the school or the doctors, never really hinted at that, but surely it was inevitable.  Amy misses Margia.  Inga misses her friends.  Renee is worried about her music lessons.  Irma feels that she’s missing out on all the excitements at the main school.  They must have felt like second-class citizens, and that must have been hard for everyone – and it must also have been strange knowing that most of the girls hoped to be moved to the main school ASAP.  And, yay, one girl rebels and has a hot bath!  I always find it very unrealistic that no-one in the entire canon series ever does that!

There isn’t that much about “delicacy” and health issues.  We’re told that they only have short lessons, and are encouraged to go out for fresh air in between lesson periods, which is interesting, and there are some references to medicine, but there’s not actually that much sense of it being a special school in any way.  Doctors are barely mentioned!   However, it would have been pretty miserable if it’d been some kind of set-up in which no-one was allowed to do anything in case they hurt or tired themselves – and that wouldn’t have fitted with the emphasis on fresh air and exercise anyway.  And, as the author pointed out, Jem would definitely not have wanted them sleeping outdoors in all weathers, which was the way it worked at some “health” places at the time J.

There are no major accidents or disasters, but there’s a lot of the usual Chalet School stuff that we know and love!  Cookery lessons, making stuff for the Sale, expeditions, etc.  It’s very well-written, and it reads a proper Chalet School without ever slavishly following EBD’s use of language or syntax.  There’s no point at which you think that that wouldn’t have happened, or that that character wouldn’t have behaved in that way, but, at the same time, it’s different, because a lot of the characters are unfamiliar and the whole Annexe set-up is unfamiliar.

It’s not particularly exciting, in that there aren’t any dramatic incidents/accidents, but, quite frankly, it all gets a bit too much in some of the Swiss books, where there are meteorites landing on cricket pitches, sudden blizzards and avalanches every five minutes and people lying “still, grey and to all appearance dead” all over the show!  There’s more than enough in the plots and the characters here to hold the reader’s attention.  The only things I’d moan about are criticisms of the Chalet School (I love it to bits, but nothing’s perfect!) rather than of this book, i.e. the portrayal of Grizel and the repetition of the two-become-one plot.  It’s a really enjoyable read – and the Tyrol-era Chalet School books are so good that anyone who can write a book that genuinely feels like one of them deserves a lot of credit!

The Long Song – BBC 1

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The brutality with which the Jamaican plantocracy reacted to the Christmas Rebellion/Baptist War/Great Jamaican Slave Revolt of 1831-2 was so horrific that it may well have been what got Abolitionism over the line in 1833; but it’s rarely spoken about. Maybe it’s just too easy to think of Abolitionism as being about people in black bombazine singing “Amazing Grace” in assembly rooms.  And stories about slavery and uprisings are usually told from the viewpoint of the slaveowners: this is a rare example of a story in which the protagonist is a slave.  She’s called July.

My one real quibble with it is that Caroline, the main white character, comes dangerously close to caricature, or at least did early on. That’s no criticism of Hayley Atwell: she’s only playing her as she was written, and doing a very good job of it. Tamara Lawrance as July is also excellent, and Lenny Henry as Godfrey, the head of the house slaves, is incredible.  We all know what a great comedian and comic actor he is, but I’ve never really thought of him as a serious actor before.  And the character of Caroline does improve as the first episode goes on, to be fair.

So what’s going on? Christmas 1831.  The slave trade’s been abolished across the British Empire in 1807, but hopes that that would lead to the abolition of slavery itself across the British Empire have as yet failed to materialise, although the Abolitionist movement – notably the Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1823- is growing in size and influence.  There’ve been attempts to improve living and working conditions for slaves, but the Jamaican Assembly hasn’t wanted to know about them. Led by Baptist deacon Samuel Sharpe, one of a number of slaves who’d become religious ministers/preachers, a general strike’s planned, to demand a wage and more free time.

It turns into an uprising. The uprising only lasts eleven days, being quickly put down by British and free black Maroon troops, but there are violent reprisals by the slaveowners afterwards, with hundreds of slaves being executed for very minor offences such as stealing a cow.   The brutality horrifies public opinion in Britain, and it almost certainly hastens the abolition of slavery.  The Jamaican sugar-based economy has already begun to collapse and there’ll be severe economic decline for the rest of the 19th century; and the white upper-classes will continue to dominate financially and politically until well into the 20th century.  But at least the days of slavery are over.

July is born about 18 years or so before this (it’s not clear exactly how old she is in 1831) as the result of the rape of a female slave, Kitty, by the plantation overseer. We see the plantation owner’s sister, Caroline, take a fancy to her because she thinks she’s sweet and cute, and take her away from Kitty to be trained up as her maid, without a thought for the feelings of either mother or child at being separated.  It should be a heartrending and shocking moment, but, unfortunately, at that point the character of Caroline’s so pantomimish and OTT that it doesn’t quite work as it should do.

At that point, I wasn’t very impressed – but it did get better. Caroline is an interesting character.  She’s actually a very vulnerable character.  She’s the only white woman on the plantation, and, for some reason, there don’t seem to be any other relatives or friends around.  I suppose she has to seem foolish because it’s important to the story, later on, that she can’t manage the slaves herself and is dependent on July, who becomes the housekeeper – but it does all go overboard early on, with a lot of yelling and shrieking and hysterics.  The idea of the cunning slave/servant and the stupid mistress/master’s a stock storyline in sitcoms, but this isn’t a sitcom.  Anyway, as I said, it got better – the character of Caroline was working much better by the end of the first episode.

She insists on calling July “Marguerite”. Dehumanisation’s a key theme here – a child is seen as being cute, as if she’s a puppy or a kitten, and is taken away from her mother without a second thought, and then her name’s changed.  OK, it isn’t quite comparable to the famous Kunta Kinte/Toby scene, but there’s a telling scene during the rebellion in which Godfrey makes Caroline call July by her real name.

In the build-up to the rebellion, or uprising, or revolt, or war, or whichever term’s preferred, we see little acts of defiance by the slaves. July and Godfrey use a soiled bedsheet as a tablecloth at a posh dinner being given by Caroline.  Godfrey tells Caroline outright that the plantation can’t afford all the candles she wants for decoration – and she hits him for it.  The slaves throw their own Christmas party.  And then the actual rebellion.

July isn’t involved in it. Instead, she and her lover, a free black man called Nimrod, are enjoying themselves in the bedroom of the master, Caroline’s brother John.  John comes in, and shoots himself.  Caroline, not wanting to admit that her brother’s killed himself, claims that she saw Nimrod shoot him.  Nimrod is executed.  July’s sent to work in the fields – but is eventually brought back to the house as housekeeper, because Caroline can’t manage without her.

At the end of the first episode, a new plantation manager, Robert Goodwin, brings news that emancipation is coming. He seems sympathetic to the slaves, but, with two more episodes to come, it’s obviously going to get very complicated.

This is the story of a woman’s life. It’s not a story of a rebellion and emancipation … but that’s like saying that Gone With The Wind isn’t about the American Civil War/War Between The States and Reconstruction, or that War and Peace isn’t about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.  It could be argued that it’s not the responsibility of Andrea Levy, the author of the book on which this is based, or of the BBC, to teach us about it.  Or is it?  If you write a book, or adapt for TV a book, about such an important and sensitive issue, then surely you are accepting some responsibility for that.  Novels, TV programmes and films reach a far wider audience than academic books do.  And this does a good job of it.  It’s not angry or aggressive.  It’s not sick-makingly preachy like Uncle Tom’s Cabin is.  Sorry, but I cannot stand that book!  It just tells the story.   Good choice by the BBC.

 

Before Bethlehem by James Flerlage

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Biblical novels, notably The Red Tent, can be very good.  This one’s only so-so, but it does have a reasonable stab at setting the nativity story in the historical context of the struggles faced by the people of Judaea and Galilee under the control of both the Romans and the religious courts.  It’s easy to forget that the nativity story’s set only 70 years or so before the outbreak of the war that culminated in the mass suicide at Masada, because no-one ever really talks about the two things as part of the same history.  It also includes some interesting Tudor-esque suggestions about Herod’s fears of being overthrown by either the line of the Maccabees or the line of King David.  However, the author’s unwillingness to choose between a Red Tent-type novel presented as historical fiction and a religious story with angels and divine messages means that the book doesn’t really work that well as a whole.

The story follows an Orthodox tradition that Joseph was a middle-aged widower with several children when he met Mary, and is told from the viewpoint of James, his youngest son. I understand that all the details of Joseph’s family as given in the book – his children, his brother and sister-in-law, the name of his first wife – come from the same tradition.  He’s shown as being a reasonably well-to-do man, rather than a “humble” carpenter.

I’m hardly an expert on the Bible, but I don’t know that it actually says anything about Joseph not being well-to-do.  Is the “humble” idea some sort of English thing from the Peasants’ Revolt and “When Adam delved and Eve span”, or am I overthinking this?  And the idea that Joseph was a fair bit older than Mary makes sense, because he disappears from the story fairly early on – although I suppose he could just have died young.  Anyway, whatever, this is the picture we get.

Archaeologists agree that Nazareth, as it is now, was only a two bit village at the time, and the book shows Joseph and his family being based in Sepphoris, a now-ruined city nearby, but also owning and farming some land at Nazareth. It suggests that Herod wanted to force all the builders/craftsmen in the area to leave their homes, close to harvest time, and go and work on constructing his new city at what’s now Tiberias.  Tiberias is – thank you, Wikipedia – supposed to have been founded quarter of a century later, but, OK, I suppose people must have been working on it beforehand.  I’m not sure how well this idea works, but it does get across the point that everyone in the area was very vulnerable at the time – you couldn’t really argue with either the Romans or the religious authorities, and just had to try to keep your head down.

Unfortunately for Joseph, in the story of this book, he not only caught the eye of Romans looking for workers but also caught the eye of the religious authorities, who were looking for a husband for Mary. And this is where the author gets himself all tangled up.

By this point, around a thousand years have passed since the time of King David. The Bible is a historian’s nightmare and it’s well nigh impossible to be sure who did or didn’t really exist, or when, but it’s generally accepted that the reign of David was around a thousand years before the birth of Jesus.  However, according to all the sources, there were still people whose line could be traced back to David, and Joseph – so the New Testament says – was one of them.  And Mary was, according to the book, considered special because she was descended from Aaron, brother of Moses (I think that’s quite a common tradition?) and had been dedicated to the Temple from birth by her parents.

This would make any child of theirs a double threat to Herod. Think Katherine Grey and Edward Seymour, or Arbella Stuart and William Seymour!   This idea works really well, and would explain quite logically why Herod might have had it in for Joseph and Mary.  Herod was only king because he’d sucked up to the Romans.  He’d replaced the Maccabee dynasty.  Yes, all right, all right, it’s officially called the Hasmonean dynasty, but (the nickname) Maccabee works better.  You don’t get football teams called Hasmoneans, do you?  He’d married a Maccabee princess, but she wasn’t his first wife or the mother of his heir.  Meanwhile, most people still regard the descendants of King David as the rightful heirs.

The nativity story totally contradicts itself on this bit. The “king” has to be descended from King David.  Joseph is descended from King David.  Therefore Jesus has to be descended from Joseph.  Let’s not go there, because people can get very offended if you start questioning religious texts, but, as a historical novel, this seemed at this point to be working really well – it was all very plausible.

It was also very interesting, with descriptions of life at the time, of the harsh punishments meted out by the religious courts, of the issues of Roman occupation, and of James and Joseph journeying to Jerusalem and their time there. The idea was that Joseph had agreed to marry Mary – who was very young, and came across as being rather a brat –  in exchange for the religious authorities using their influence with the Romans to get him out of having to work at Tiberias.

However, it then all goes a bit awry, because the author presumably couldn’t bear to abandon the religious story, and brought in angels and miracles. He couldn’t bear to leave Bethlehem out of it either, even though historians can’t find any evidence to support the census story and it’s likely that Jesus was actually born in the Nazareth area and the stable/Bethlehem stuff was “created” to provide a link to Royal David’s City.  He doesn’t go with the census story, and instead, having included angels – although he doesn’t actually show angels appearing in Nazareth, instead saying that they’d appeared “offstage”, whilst Mary was staying with her cousin Elizabeth – and insisted that it’s a miraculous virgin birth, says that they decide to leave Nazareth to get away from the gossip, the scandal, and, above all, fears of punishment by the religious courts.

No stable as such. Instead, the birth takes place in a watch tower.  On the Day of Atonement.  Well, it couldn’t have been December, or shepherds wouldn’t have been watching their flocks by night – and the idea is that they originally went to Jerusalem but the reason everywhere was full up was because there were loads of pilgrims there.  That makes sense, I suppose.  And then three astrologers sent by Herod turn up, everyone keeps going on about miracles and messiahs, and they head off to Egypt.

So it’s a strange mixture of actual, practical history, Orthodox tradition relating to the life of Joseph, and a religious-miracle element which the author evidently couldn’t bear to be without. I’m not knocking religious-miracle stories, if that’s what people are into, but I don’t think that trying to work them into a historical novel really works very well.  It would have been much better to have stuck with the idea of Herod being after Joseph and Mary because he was worried about the threat from a scion of the rightful ruling dynasty.

It might be worth a read, if only for people to remind themselves of the historical context. As I said, no-one ever really relates the nativity story to the issues of Roman rule in Judaea and Galilee.  The Christian stories move on to Rome and Ephesus and don’t cover the destruction of the Second Temple, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Siege of Masada, and the Jewish stories don’t do Jesus, so you don’t get them together. But trying to combine a historical story and a religious-miracle story can get a bit muddled.