Braids of Glory
My niece E and her cousin L, both 8 years old, each received a copy of Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword for Chanukah — but not before Uncle Brian read it... twice.
The graphic novel — about, to quote the cover copy, “Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl” — is a fun, touching yarn no matter your age, gender, or heritage. Author Barry Deutsch, who produced Hereville as a webcomic (and self-published a paper version as well) before a hardcover edition was released through Abrams’ imprint Amulet Books, is after all no more writing about or exclusively for himself than most authors of children’s and young-adult fiction, nor is the best of such fiction restricted to that nominal target audience.
Mirka Hirschberg is a smart, imaginative lass who lives in a community known as Hereville and chafes at some of its expectations for her. She’s less interested in becoming a wife than a dragonslayer but obviously respects and holds dear many rituals. We get the sense that she’s not a rebel for rebellion’s sake, just independent and adventuresome.
Her mother has passed on, and Mirka lives with her Poppa, stepmother Fruma, little brother Zindel, and many sisters, including a 10-year-old stepsister named Rochel with whom she shares a room. Zindel is regularly bullied by a couple of other boys, and one day after sticking up for him the spunky Mirka finds herself running through the woods straight to a previously unseen house, quite strange and with a lavish garden, that appears to be home to a witch. Stealing a grape from the garden puts Mirka on the bad side of the witch’s pig, but a later turn of events places the witch, by her own account,
in Mirka’s debt, and so to even the ledger the witch tells the would-be dragonslayer
how she can acquire that most necessary of dragonslaying accoutrements.
Such a broad outline gives little indication of the story’s flavor, which is spiced with details as specific to the Hirschbergs’ culture as the hero’s journey is universal — often the mark of a compelling tale. We see Mirka’s family observe the Sabbath customs, are given through both dialogue and omniscient illustrations some observations of Orthodox Jewish life, and encounter Yiddish expressions on nearly every page. The world of trolls and talking pigs into which Mirka has stumbled, believed by her siblings at first to be merely another flight of fancy, troubles her 14-year-old sister Gittel; calling attention to herself by mouthing off to boys and charging through the woods, let alone musing about battling monsters, is no way for Mirka to be considered a good match
and could reflect poorly on her siblings as well. Hardly the evil-stepmother stereotype, Fruma seems to appreciate Mirka’s intellectual and emotional, if not physical, wanderlust the most. Fruma challenges Mirka’s thinking constructively even as she commits to educating Mirka in traditional feminine disciplines.
Exactly where or even when Hereville exists is unclear. Mirka’s home does have
electric appliances, while a few brief, jarring references to popular entertainment are at odds with Mirka’s daily life — but those come from a troll, who may well exist outside time like the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin. What’s stranger, given the hints of relative modernity, is the extent of Hereville’s apparent isolation, as only Mirka’s stepsister Rochel even recognizes a pig from when she lived amongst goyim (non-Jews).
Another minor quibble is that Hebrew and Yiddish words are explained at the page bottom, no matter where on the page they’re used, which can interrupt the flow of the story; I’d have preferred small captions within the appropriate panel. Further, although I suspect (not to mention hope, as it would indicate a wide audience) that many readers will come to Hereville with zero knowledge of Yiddish, some of Deutsch’s choices of transliteration are puzzling. Yiddish — based on German with dollops of Hebrew and other languages — is mostly a spoken tongue in America, granted, and has few standardized English spellings even among the loanwords that have made their way into everyday parlance (schmuck, chutzpah, schmooze), but surely challah has to be a more recognizable choice for pronunciation than khale for the bread traditionally eaten on Shabbat, braided much like Mirka’s hair.
Deutsch’s art falls prey to a pitfall which can bedevil even the most practiced creators, namely that in employing an admirably spare, open style of cartooning he inevitably ends up with an occasional awkward rendering when the line isn’t just right. I like the clean, simple look overall, however, far better than the infrequent, more detailed close-ups, and Deutsch’s figure work is at times outstanding in deceptively complex ways. He generally keeps to a basic grid of panels, making the well-executed departures all the more effective; a page of Mirka justifying her actions to herself and the reader late in the story is particularly nice. The muted palette of Jack Richmond’s colors and its flat application, eschewing modern airbrush-style techniques, are perfect.
I can’t tell you how Hereville comes across to a reader who isn’t of at least partial Jewish heritage; while I grew up in a secular environment, I went to extracurricular religious school for a time and had grandparents who spoke some Yiddish. But I would guess that if you’re even familiar with the Amish or Mennonites, let alone Chassidim — or, heck, if you’ve seen Fiddler on the Roof — then it shouldn’t be unrelatably foreign. Even with the criticisms above, and the caveat that the ending was quite abrupt, I appreciated the book enough to revisit it in short order and explore its origins. The website is a great way to find out if it’s for you, although if you enjoy the generous preview I recommend you buy the graphic novel rather than read the web-comic, which was greatly expanded and redrawn for Amulet’s hardcover publication.
“Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl,” indeed. As Mirka’s Poppa might say, What’s not to like?
Excerpts from Hereville © 2010 Barry Deutsch.
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• Dragon Tale • Unread by Me • Bedtimes and Broomsticks