Naomi and Her Daughters
People are often drawn to the familial and romantic elements of the biblical Book of Ruth. A young Moabite widow, Ruth, strikes out on a journey with her Jewish mother-in-law, the widow Naomi. A few chapters later, Ruth finds a kind man who marries her and gives her children, just three generations removed from Israel’s king David. That element of the story is here in Walter Wangerin’s earthy novel, but it’s toward the end.
For source material in the first half of the book, Wangerin turns to a darker biblical passage that isn’t referenced as often: the last three chapters of Judges, the pages that immediately precede Ruth’s opening line, “Now it came to pass, in the days when the judges ruled…” Long story short: a young woman is murdered (Judges 19); to avenge the crime, which is more complicated than mere murder, 11 tribes of Israel go to war against the 12th (Judges 20), a war that is more complicated than you might imagine (Judges 21). In Wangerin’s fictional telling, the murder victim is Milcah, a foster daughter of Naomi, a playmate of her sons, an apprentice in Naomi’s role as Bethlehem’s midwife and Hakamah, or herb healer. We meet young Boaz, an impetuous adolescent, and his respected father, who will be killed in the war, leaving Boaz adrift as he struggles toward maturity.
This is a novel for readers who like many-layered, nuanced fiction, who don’t flinch at war wounds and vile crimes. Chapters are marked with a time frame, whether past or present, though the present moves forward in progressive parts of the book named for key characters: Milcah, Boaz, Ruth. Part 4, “The Hakamah,” starts in the future and gives reasons why Naomi in her old age wanted Milcah’s story to be told to the generations: “Naomi, Bethlehem’s clear-eyed Hakamah, knew that without the hard histories, the days would come again when there would be no King of heaven and earth, and all the people would do what was right in their own eyes” (a reference to the very last verse of the book of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes”).
All that said, this is a gentle, loving story that continually draws the reader --- through the characters, particularly Naomi and Boaz --- toward redemption, urging us, and them, to choose life. A novelist with less skill might be seen as anachronistically quoting from the biblical poetic books, such as the Psalms and Song of Songs, placing them in Naomi’s mind or mouth. But it seems to work; it’s easy to imagine poems being composed and then recited down through generations, grandparent to grandson and on.
After you’ve read the book, not before, read the last chapters of Judges to compare the scriptural account with the novel’s adaptation. Read and then walk around the block to contemplate the two versions, making the redemption your own.
Reviewed by Evelyn Bence on August 17, 2010