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Mara's Stories: Glimmers in the Darkness
By Gary Schmidt

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Mara's Stories book cover
Finding hope in the midst of horror is at the heart of a new book by Calvin professor and author Gary Schmidt. (New Hork: Henry Holt and Company, 2001, 149 pp.)

Mara's Stories is a collection of 22 Jewish folktales, brought together from a variety of sources, and told by a fictional narrator, Mara, who is in a concentration camp. Her audience is the women and children of the camp, who each evening come to Mara's bunk to hear the words.

"They celebrate," Schmidt says, "all that is good and strong in the human spirit, all that cannot be destroyed by evil. It is one of the reasons why the stories are powerful for all listeners, all readers, and why the stories are still alive today."

Schmidt, a Long Island native who grew up in a predominantly Jewish community, did extensive research to bring together the 22 stories in the book, skillfully weaving together the works of such sources as the Jewish religious scholar Martin Buber, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and folklorists Steve Zeitlin and Yaffa Eliach.

The book's stories, many of which actually were told in the barracks, are true to their Jewish roots, but Schmidt often brings fictional twists and literary turns to the tales. For example, in a piece called "The Good Morning" Schmidt retells the tale of two neighbors who see each other daily and greet each other warmly. But then one man arrives at a death camp, only to find that his neighbor is a guard. And not just any guard, but the one who decides which prisoners should die and which should be sent to work and thus live.

It's a well-known Jewish story, but Schmidt brings his own perspective to it. He has the two men meet each morning as they tend their gardens, giving them, he says, a regular reason to be out and to see each other. And as he describes one man's care for his garden he foreshadows his role in the camps.

"And every morning, when Herr Shaul passes," writes Schmidt, "Herr Mueller would be on his knees in the garden, planting a seedling he had nursed through the late winter, spading over the dark soil, or carefully separating a grouping of lily bulbs, laying aside those he thought would no longer bloom and replanting the others. Herr Mueller was very careful about his selection."

Later, in the camp, Herr Shaul sees the two lines split. "To the left shuffled the old ones like himself, so weak, drooping like wilted daffodils. To the right younger ones, ones who might be made to work for the murderers." And then Herr Shaul comes to the front of the line and comes to the Nazi officer making the selections. And before he can check himself he says: "Good morning, Herr Mueller." And Mueller, before he even thinks, replies: "Good morning, Herr Shaul." And then Herr Mueller must select. And he jerks his thumb and says: "To the right."

Attention to historical detail is evident in reading the notes to each of the 22 stories. Schmidt says it was important for him to get the stories right and to demonstrate their power not only for the Jewish community, but for all people.

"The Holocaust," he says, "is not just a Jewish story or a German story. It's a story for all of humanity. My hope for this book is that it will bring to even wider audiences important lessons of perseverance and hope, lessons that are for us, in every generation, always new, always true."

Festival of Faith and Writing
April 18-20, 2002

Travels with a Purpose
From June 21 to June 30, 2002, Gary Schmidt and Jerry Fondse will be leading a group of Calvin College alumni and friends to Concord, Mass.

Books by Calvin Professors
Chimes reviews 6 recent releases

Writing for Children
Summer graduate workshop led by Don Hettinga and Gary Schmidt, June 17-21, 2002

Also by Gary Schmidt...
More books, and his most recent: Straw into Gold

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