The Devil in Sarah Stein
Thane Rosenbaum’s young-adult novel The Stranger Within Sarah Stein, takes on the Holocaust and Sept. 11 but can’t reconcile Jewish past and future
Soon, contemporary children’s fiction will be too far removed from the events of the last century to plausibly include characters with even the most attenuated ties to the Holocaust. That day hasn’t arrived yet for Sarah Stein, a young Manhattanite who is equally at ease referencing The The and Justin Timberlake; she has no compunction about going to Chelsea art galleries or eating in trendy sushi restaurants in the Meatpacking District. When she first introduces herself in The Stranger Within Sarah Stein, Thane Rosenbaum’s new novel (his first stab at young adult fiction), Sarah tells us that her parents’ imminent divorce is tearing her asunder, robbing her of innocence, and fracturing her into “Dr. Jekyll and Miss Hyde.”
While Sarah, who’s compassionate, friendly, and forthright, feels herself pulled in different directions, veering from a punk-goth mélange to a goodie-two-shoes aesthetic depending on whether she’s with her father or mother, her journey is not a contemporary retelling of Lisa, Bright and Dark, the 1969 hit that chronicles a girl’s descent into madness. It’s something weirder and more confusing, but not without some real pleasures for younger readers.
As the adventure gets under way, Sarah’s mother is decamping from the family’s Tribeca loft to set up house as an aspiring divorcée across the river in Dumbo, near the gourmet chocolate company she owns. Sarah’s father is a successful artist and far more resistant to the split. Sarah’s world is crumbling at the precise time that she develops an awareness that people wear figurative masks and, more alarmingly, keep secrets about their pasts.
Meanwhile, this precocious child is befriended by an eye-patch-wearing homeless man named Clarence Wind who’s estranged from his family. (Clarence Darrow, Inherit the Wind? It has nothing to do with the plot of the book, so forgive me.) Sarah feels most at home with Wind, as she takes to calling him. He offers her a needed sense of safety in tumult after she crashes her bike on the Brooklyn Bridge, and he, alone, stops to see if she’s all right.
Clarence seems to live in a secret chamber in a tower on the Bridge, which is hardly the only strange and fascinating thing about him. How did he become homeless? What happened to his eye? Why does he have a book called The Hidden Children of the Holocaust and a piece of melted steel that seems to have come from Ground Zero and that still freakishly retains heat some four years after the Twin Towers were destroyed?
While there are no zombies or vampires here, there are ghosts, as well as photographs that include figures who didn’t pose for the original pictures. There are also telling coincidences that young readers might perhaps forgive, or be charmed by, or, more likely, not perceive as contrived. Wind’s older brother, for instance, happens to live in the same building as Sarah’s father and, unbeknownst to all involved, is a collector of his art.
It also turns out that Sarah’s grandmother knows Wind—he had been the doorman in her Washington Heights apartment building, and his book about the hidden children of the Holocaust is the key that Sarah needs to understand the older woman. In spite of the Yiddishisms her grandmother throws around (they border on caricature), the grandmother was hidden in a Polish convent as a small child. She lost not simply part of her identity, but her family. Since then, she has carried around rosary beads to calm herself, in fact. While her loss is tragic, its inclusion in the book is a bit haphazard, as is the inclusion of the Sept. 11 attacks (not to mention the inclusion, too, of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center). The untidy pile-up of newsy events and themes in these pages doesn’t make Rosenbaum’s book any less entertaining or readable, but it does make it feel capricious, and therefore somewhat pointless.
Ultimately, the purpose of the hidden-child detour is so that Sarah’s grandmother can show the child that living dual identities—in Sarah’s case, adapting her personality according to which parent she is seeing—will exhaust her emotionally. It’s an inoffensive lesson, arguably even a good one. At the same time, it seems like having to subsume your identity in order to avoid death-by-Nazi is a tad more trying than having to figure out how to be fully yourself in the face of a reasonably civilized divorce.
The more interesting lesson has to do with a larger American Jewish identity crisis that is centered around the Holocaust. We know that Sarah Stein is Jewish because of her name, and because of her family link to the Holocaust through her grandmother. But very soon, such a plot device will no longer make sense outside the realm of time-travel, at which point authors like Rosenbaum will have to find other means, besides ethnic-sounding names, to make their nonobservant characters Jewish. The challenge facing Rosenbaum in his next Sarah Stein novel—if he chooses to write one—reflects a larger challenge that faces our community, and where our imagination and inventiveness seem to run dry.
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