Jane Isenberg's mystery, The Bones and the Book, is a departure from her Bel Barrett mysteries featuring an English professor in mid-life. Those earlier mysteries are the reason for Isenberg's interesting biography on her publisher's webpage. It says, "Jane Isenberg taught English to urban community college students for close to thirty years. She has been writing mysteries ever since she experienced her first hot flash. Her copies of Modern Maturity are delivered to her new home in Amherst, Massachusetts, that she shares with her husband Phil Thompkins." It's my pleasure to welcome guest blogger, Jane Isenberg, today.
Widowed by the 1965 earthquake, Seattle housewife Rachel Mazursky translates the Yiddish diary of a murdered young immigrant girl whose bones were unearthed by the same quake. Rachel shares her translation with the reader so the diarist’s distinctive voice alternates with Rachel's own passionate account of her response to the diary. The refugee’s story moves Rachel, compelling her to read between the lines while searching Seattle for clues to the young woman's murder.
A Jewish fortune teller inspired me to write The Bones and the Book. I remember gaping at a facsimile of her business card in the gift shop of the Tenement Museum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Her card claims that she “tells you the past, present and future” and “gives the best advice in business, journeys, law suits, love, sickness, and family affairs.” Over a century ago this immigrant palmist lived in the very same building that houses the Museum. Where did she get the guts to flout rabbinical strictures that forbid predicting the future? I’m a big fan of women who defy rules men make for us, so right there in that shop I resolved to write a historical mystery featuring a young Orthodox Jewish palm reader living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. I named her Feigele, and she took up residence in my head sharing space with Bel Barrett whose adventures I was then writing about.
Feigele was still in my head years later when I moved from the east coast to Issaquah, Washington where I discovered that I was often the only Jew in the room, an outsider. I began reading Pacific Northwest history including that of the small Jewish community there. What would a spirited Orthodox Jewish girl like Feigele have experienced in rough Nineteenth Century Seattle or in lawless Alaska during the Gold Rush? She could very well have come to a bad end. She could have been killed. With that realization, I decided to set Feigele’s story in the Pacific Northwest and have her tell it in her diary.
But Feigele would have written her diary in Yiddish, and I don’t speak Yiddish. That’s when I invented Rachel Mazursky, the widow who translates the fortune teller’s diary in 1965 and ultimately figures out who killed the diarist. Rachel is a smart and resilient Jewish mother with an empty nest, an empty bed, a passion for history, and a tale of her own to tell. Unlike Feigele who looks to the future, Rachel probes the past for clues and finds comfort and courage there as well. Readers see early Jewish Seattle and Gold Rush Skagway through Feigele’s immigrant eyes and Sixties Seattle through Rachel’s American ones.
My Bel Barrett mysteries are set in a time and place I’m very familiar with and Bel does work I had done for decades and was still doing when I began to write the series. But The Bones and the Book is set in two different time periods, one I knew little about and the other I barely remembered. As a recent “transplant” to Washington, I also knew little of the Pacific Northwest and, truth to tell, as a not very observant Jew, I knew little of Orthodox Judaism or Jewish history. And the work Feigele does is not work I’ve ever done. So, for the first time, I was writing what I didn’t know. But I had retired, and I was determined to learn what I needed to know to tell this story and so learn I did
After years of research, I finally let the long-dead pioneer palmist out of my head, turned her loose on the page, listened to her voice, and joined her on her very American outsider’s odyssey. Writing The Bones and the Book has been deeply rewarding. By fictionalizing the little known history of Seattle’s pioneer Jews, I’ve become a pioneer myself instead of an outsider.
Thank you, Jane. What a fascinating story about your new book!
Jane Isenberg's website is www.janeisenberg.com
The Bones and the Book by Jane Isenberg. Oconee Spirit Press. 2012. ISBN 9780984010929 (paperback), 262p.