Call it "The Passion of Caren": author Caren Umbarger is a professional violinist and string teacher, and that dedication shines through every sentence about music or violins in her award-winning historical novel The Passion of Marta.
Here is her description of the making of a violin. To fashion the perfect instrument, a craftsman in 18th-century Nuremberg "attached the neck using the modern style placement that he had learned about in his father's shop. Rather than extending the neck straight out from the body of the violin—which would necessitate a wedge under the fingerboard to help the strings to reach the height of the bridge—the luthier tilted the neck slightly."
In the same fashion, Umbarger enriches her tale with her detailed knowledge about the lives of German Jews of that era—from debates over assimilation, to the threats of constant anti-Semitism, to the food in an inn kitchen: "bowls and baskets of...onions, potatoes, braids of garlic, two large loaves of dark bread, and—next to them—a crock of schmaltz, vegetables in brine, several bunches of beets with withered green stems, and a good number of half-shriveled apples". Since I've done a lot of research into the world of 20th-century Polish Jews, it was particularly fascinating for me to read about an earlier time in a neighboring country—to see, perhaps, how those conditions helped set the stage for both Zionism and the Holocaust.
It takes about 50 pages for the story in Passion to get going, but once it does, Umbarger knows how to keep the reader's attention. After the musician Mordechai Ben Mendel purchases the Nuremberg violin and brings it to the Jewish-German town of Jebenhausen, he is hired by the widowed innkeeper, Chanah Lindauer, to teach her 12-year-old son, Samuel, to play. Samuel's 9-year-old sister Marta is actually far more talented, but because girls are not allowed to learn music (or much else besides housekeeping), Ben Mendel must teach Marta in secret. And the secret price he extracts is even more forbidden.
When Ben Mendel is caught, however, Marta is punished as much as he is, shunned by her mother and the entire town as a zoyne—a whore. Almost simultaneously, Samuel dies, the violin disappears, and Samuel's bar mitzvah tutor—the gentle, young Ascher Thanhausser—is evicted. With all that, Marta loses every source of happiness in her circumscribed life.
Marta's guilt and self-hatred are portrayed with such depth and pain that the reader wants to grab her in a tight hug. In her diary, she writes: "Large dark flapping entities, like huge vultures, swirled through my vision. I'm certain I heard a cry from deep within my soul that sounded like a strangled goat." Today's #MeToo stories are bad enough; we forget how much worse it was centuries ago, when women lacked basic rights and their voices were never heard.
As for the other characters, Ascher is sympathetic and interesting, although his moral dilemma in keeping Marta's secret could have been explored more fully. Similarly, Ben Mendel would have been a much more complex person if the author had fleshed out the contradiction that Ascher ponders: "How could such beautiful music like that come forth from such a fiend?" (It's the same question we ask today about Harvey Weinstein: How could such a disgusting predator have produced amazing films like "Good Will Hunting," "The English Patient," and "Shakespeare in Love"?)
Still, the reader of The Passion of Marta becomes absorbed enough to care deeply about the fate of Marta and her companions.
Caren Umbarger is a professional violinist, teacher, and youth orchestra artistic director whose musical interests range from classical to rock. Her first novel, Coming To, won the Florida Book Awards Bronze Medal for general fiction in 2011. The Passion of Marta won or was a finalist for three awards.
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