Hadassah: One Night with the King
The Bible contains any number of riveting stories, and my personal favorite is the story of Esther, wife of the Persian king Xerxes, known as the Purim story to those in the Jewish faith. This story has a little bit of everything in it: murder, treachery, palace intrigue, brave deeds, and love. Hadassah: One Night with the King fictionalizes this account, fleshing it out with detail and emotion.
As in the biblical account, Hadassah (later Esther) is a young girl being raised by her relative Mordecai after her parents are killed by Amalekites. When Xerxes’s queen, Vashti, displeases him by not obeying a direct command to parade herself in front of the drunken court, Xerxes deposes her, and the search for a new queen begins. Hadassah is entered in this “beauty contest.” Her entire future and the future of her people, the Jews, will depend on how she handles herself with Xerxes because of powerful forces at court who would rid the land of Jews in a bloody purge. But what can one girl do against this powerful hatred?
Most of the story is told in first person, with Esther herself narrating her life story to her would-be successor. This works fairly well, except for the parts that go into the history of the bad blood between the Israelites and the Amalekites. That part is told in the personal point of view of King Saul (which Esther could not have known) and delves into one of stories of the Old Testament that I find most distressing and difficult. The story goes that Saul is ordered to conquer the Amalekites and kill every man, woman, and child therein, as well as all the livestock. Saul loses his kingdom because he doesn’t commit complete genocide. Instead some of the livestock is spared and so is King Agag. The Bible comes down heavily on Saul for his failure, and the author goes along with the idea that the total genocide of the Amalekites would have been the proper outcome. Hadassah herself repeats this. Since the book of Esther is essentially about how horrifying the idea of total genocide is, and the author makes an effort to compare the Amalekites with the Nazis (in this version, the Amalekites’ symbol is a swastika), Tenney sends some pretty mixed messages here. The Jews are all good, and must be saved. The Amalekites are a cursed, evil race, and must be obliterated. To me, genocide is genocide, killing the innocent is never good, and these parts of the book were just distasteful.
The rest of the story worked well, however. Tenney went to some effort to try and describe the political conditions of the ancient world when Persia was ascendant. I learned quite a bit about Xerxes’s personality, and his war on Greece. The history of the villain Haman is also given, including how he got to be in such an exalted position as the Master of the Audiences and how exactly he persuaded Xerxes to have all the Jews killed. Tenney describes the position of a court concubine and what Esther would have faced had she not become queen. Though the story does address the relationship between Esther and Xerxes, and is romantic in parts, the realities of court life and a king’s privileges in ancient Persia are not glossed over. And the Happily Ever After is somewhat brief.
Esther herself is skillfully rendered. She is bright and very savvy. It’s not by mistake that she wins Xerxes’s affections and manages to save her people. And not only is she clever, she is also brave and devout. Though this is “inspirational” fiction, it’s not Christian fiction, since this is Jewish scripture. But Esther prays to her God and develops an intimate, loving relationship with him through her prayers and her deeds. So in that sense the book is about deepening faith.
Hadassah: One Night with the King isn’t perfect. It’s a little too descriptive in parts, the pacing is occasionally off, and the contemporary story Tenney uses to introduce the biblical one is unnecessary and a little fantastical. Still it managed to hold my interest despite the fact that I knew by heart everything that was going to happen. If you like fictionalized biblical accounts or stories about brave and intelligent women, this book might be for you.