Magical Realism For Hard Times

“Encrypting Maya” by Lawrence Kelter spans generations and locales, “leapfrogging from one time and place to another,” as the author says. The plot, which starts out as a tale about two children, one black, the other white, who become best friends in rural North Carolina, morphs into a story of separation, racial violence, romance, murder, mystery, Harvard-sponsored DNA experimentation, Utopian fantasy of saving the world from disease, big pharma corruption of academic science, and redemption.

What’s more, the time line goes from 1989 to 2115, and the narrative is told from multiple points of view, with a new voice showing up in the last chapters. The structure breaks into four unequally sized “books,” with suspense evident in only the second half of the novel and an ending that leaves some complications unresolved. So, what to make of it all, especially as the author has a resumé of tightly written crime fiction?

His “most ambitious novel,” Kelter writes, “Encrypting Maya” has heart and exudes a sense of comfort fiction for our harsh and divisive age. It’s a timely reminder that red-state rural America contains some “goodhearted salt-of-the-earth folks.” But the story is, alas, too packed with diverse goals, as well intentioned as these are, to change the world, as the world fights back “every step of the way.”

In a brief afterword, Kelter, a born and bred Long Islander, mentions his recent move to North Carolina, love of family, and hope for a time when “we are all brethren,” a time when “it takes no effort to see that we are all just people. We are all the same.” And so, his young protagonists, Josh and Maya, manage an affectionate relationship which, over the decades and away from North Carolina, turns into deep love, premised on serving those in need. Prejudice, however, dies hard and power politics has a nasty way of subverting altruism.

The World That We Knew

New York Times bestselling author Alice Hoffman, who also grew up on Long Island, has her own heartfelt adventure to offer, “The World That We Knew,” based on a true story told to her by a fan at a book signing. The woman confided to Hoffman that during World War II, her Jewish parents had her live with non-Jews to escape the Nazis. They were known as “hidden children,” and Hoffman thought about this woman and her unusual upbringing for years before deciding to travel to Europe and learn more. A short end-list of “further reading” testifies to the author’s exploration of the hidden children, and of French collaboration, but along the way, history gave way to fantasy.

It is 1941. Jews are being rounded up and parents fear for their children’s safety more than for their own. Although the subject matter is familiar, Hoffman gives it a unique spin by having her 12-year old protagonist Lea escape by way of a golem that is fashioned out of mud by 17-year old Effie, the daring daughter of an orthodox rabbi who has observed the arcane formulas and rituals of the men to make golems.

When Lea’s mother, Hanni, comes to beg for help by making a golem, Effie agrees, and a golem is secretly made, a female they name Ava. A golem, a staple of Jewish folklore, has extraordinary physical powers and is typically invoked to assist those in need, but because it has no soul, it cannot be counted on always to do the right thing, and at some point, according to tradition, must be destroyed by the person it serves.

Each woman in Hoffman’s tale is given a point of view, even though Ava, the golem, is “not sure what sort of being she was.” She knew she shouldn’t have feelings but, of course, in the magic world of yearning born of desperation, she acquires sympathy, empathy. Together the female characters manage to help underground groups flee and to rescue as many children as they can.

The theme of Hoffman’s tale — and Kelter’s — is the power of love to triumph over tragedy, even as “the world that we knew” is long gone and cynicism and cruelty now rule. It’s been said (and attributed to the philosopher George Santayana) that those who do not or cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. Hoffman and Kelter would seem implicitly to agree, but offer as a counterforce the education of the human heart.

More from Our Sister Sites