Jewish Role Playing Games, Take 2

Hanukkah sameach!

In 2020, I made a post about role playing games that can be played with dreidels. It came to mind again this year because it started getting a lot of attention as Hanukkah approached, and I realized that I ought to do a follow up. Since that original post, I completed my conversion to Judaism and have become a lot more well versed in table-top role playing games.

Now, there is a history of fantasy games and media not treating Jews the best, when we’re there at all. See Dungeons & Dragons with its undead liches and their phylacteries, how golems are framed as monsters, or this article about Jewish tabletop miniatures from the 1980s, and how some were based on antisemitic stereotypes. I found that article while hunting for Jewish-looking miniatures for a rabbinical student character I play in a Powered by the Apocalypse game. While I didn’t find any that suited my needs, I did find a Maccabean army set designed for war games as well as some cool, non-evil looking golem miniatures on Etsy—a PC (player character) figure of a golem artificer, this guy who gives me delightfully Jewish vibes, and this rock/nature “golem” who’s got an elf friend.

More importantly, and the point of this post, is that I also found a whole slew of wonderful, independent, Jewish-made role playing games. Below the cut I will give you a break down of those games as well as talk about a few more mainstream games and how I incorporate Jewish elements into PCs I make and the games I run.

Continue reading “Jewish Role Playing Games, Take 2”

Im Eisland: Band 1, Die Franklin-Expedition

Image ID: A panel of a man seated on the ground, taking notes. He has a thick beard and is dressed in an Inuit style coat. His internal monologue reads, in German, "Was gescha damals vor 20 Jahren wirklich, als die Franklin-Expedition in der Arktis zugrunde ging? Ich, Charles Francis Hall, werde das Rätsel lösen!" The Snapchat caption reads, in English, "'I, Charles Francis Hall, will solve the puzzle!' Fuck, that is so very Hall." End ID.

Kristina Gehrmann’s “Im Eisland” trilogy has been on my radar for a long time and I’ve owned it for almost as long. It’s the story of the Franklin Expedition and its disappearance in the Arctic in the mind 1800s. If you’re a long time follower, you probably recognize the name as I’ve had at least three reviews on FE related fiction appear on this blog. Due to the mystery of the expedition, however, each piece of fiction brings something new and “Im Eisland” is no exception.

Volume one starts with Charles Francis Hall interviewing a group of Inuit about discovering the remains of the expedition before flashing back to just prior to the expedition sailing and getting to know our key players. It then ends with the death of the first of the Beechey Boys, the trio of men who died during the first winter when the ships were frozen in at Beechey Island.

Something I really loved was how seamlessly we are introduced to new, frequently similar looking, characters without the narrative grinding to a halt. I also enjoyed how we got an even split between scenes with the officers and scenes with the men, which we are given through John Torrington, Thomas Evans, and John and Tom Hartnell, being point-of-view characters. (Note: The two Johns here make up two of the Beechey three, so it makes a lot of sense to make them early POV characters.)

Image ID: A panel of a man, First Lieutenant Graham Gore, playing the flute. He has dark hair with muttonchops and a freckle on his left cheek. Behind him is a string of music notes. The Snapchat caption reads "Gore on the flute!!!" End ID.

It’s also very clear that a lot of care went into the research. For example, we see Graham Gore playing the flute, which he did historically, but it’s such a small detail and one I’ve never seen in FE fiction before. I also love the art style, and how Gehrmann has adapted the few images we have of the officers to create visually dynamic characters. I am particularly fond of her Le Vesconte, Fitzjames and Crozier. The art also really drives home just how young a lot of these men were, Fitzjames was 31 to Franklin’s 59 and Crozier’s 49.

Image ID: In the wardroom, Sir John Franklin stands flanked by Captain Francis Crozier on his right and Commander James Fitzjames on his left. The age difference is very apparently between them, Sir John is graying and portly at 59, Crozier is younger, but still showing his age at 49 and Fitzjames is a fresh-faced 31. Sir John has his hands out and is saying, "Wunderbar! Heute Abend lasse ich die besten Delikatessen servieren, die England zu bieten hat! Sie werden sich wie zu Hause fühlen, Gentlemen!" The Snapchat caption reads, Fuck, the art really drives home just how young James was. End ID.

Now, I read “Im Eisland” in its original German, both because I need to refresh my rusty skills before grad school and because I do better reading from hard copies. However, there is an English version, “Icebound,” that has been published online as a webcomic. If you are thinking, “My German is rusty/bad/limited, but I’d like a hard copy,” I can tell you that it’s not impossible to read with rusty/limited German provided you have the determination and a dictionary. Ultimately, my biggest problem was unfamiliar vocabulary.

A few words of warning, everyone from the expedition dies. This is historical fact, but reading about graphic death in a novel is different than seeing it drawn. Volume one sees on page animal death, and later volumes will see deterioration from scurvy and a variety of other deaths. There’s also some period typical reactions to gay characters, and I believe volume two has a lashing for sodomy, but nothing I would define as uncomfortable/excessive levels of in canon homophobia.

If you enjoyed “The Terror” show (not the book, never the book), I would definitely recommend “Im Eisland”/“Icebound.” I got my copies straight from the press website, however, you can find it on Amazon if shipping costs are an issue.

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Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler

“Solomon Gursky” is an unexpectedly weird book, but one I would highly recommend to anyone with a taste for unique Franklin expedition fiction. As a novel, “Solomon Gursky” is part Franklin mystery, part Jewish family drama, and part critique of capitalist dynasty families. A lot of effort has been put into portraying the expedition accurately — Richler cites “Frozen in Time” by Owen Beattie as a primary influence — and a good number of the deviations (of which are many) don’t feel accidental, they feel intentional as part of building this alternate history where two Jewish conmen manage to finagle positions on the Franklin expedition.

Image ID: Text from "Solomon Gursky Was Here" reading, "There was another problem. Neither Ephraim Gursky nor Izzy Garber was listed in the muster books of the Erebus of the Terror (available at Admiralty Records, Public Records Office). The Snapchat caption reads, "Fucking fantastic." End ID.

The book is framed by a man named Moses Berger and his efforts to write a biography of the deceased Solomon Gursky, it’s something of an obsession, actually. This framing allows for the mysteries and secrets hidden by the Gursky family to unravel over the course of the book as we bounce between the points of view of various Gursky family members (there’s a helpful family tree in the front of the book); Moses himself; epistolary elements such as diaries and telegrams; and a variety of other important players. The same stories get told in different ways depending on who is doing the telling, which is very fun, and it’s done in such away that it never feels repetitive. Every time I got a detail that clarified a previous mystery or teased an answer I was vibrating with excitement. If you enjoy piecing together mysteries as you read you will find “Solomon Gursky” very satisfying.

Image ID: Text from "Solomon Gursky" reading, "'You shouldn't have lied at the trial' 'We owed Solomon everything.' 'You did it to save your own skin.' 'Why bring that up now, after all these years?' 'Find Bert Smith. Make it up to him. Promise me that.' 'I promise.'" The Snapchat caption reads, "There are so many moving pieces to this Solomon mystery and they're laid out so masterfully. I am yelling!!!" End ID.

While the Gursky family is Jewish and Judaism is important to the story, on the surface several characters could be read as anti-semitic stereotypes. For example, Ephraim Gursky is a notorious conman, and brothers Bernard, Solomon and Morrie establish themselves as capitalist alcohol barons who get their start selling bootleg alcohol during prohibition. Few of the characters in this book can be considered “good,” but from a Jewish author it becomes “these are complicated, difficult and sometimes awful people who are Jewish” rather than offensive stereotypes. A gentile author could not pull this book off, at all.

Image ID: Text from "Solomon Gursky" reading, "Sammy 'Red' Levine, out of Toledo, was stricktly Orthodox: he was never without a yarmulke and didn't murder on the Sabbath." The Snapchat caption reads, "Because Shabbat is clearly the only time murder is unacceptable." End ID.

Anti-semitism, racism, sexism and homophobia come up throughout the book, from various characters and in a range of opinions. However, not every instance of prejudice can be explained as only coming from the characters. Two of the biggest issues I had were the portrayal of the Inuit, which runs stereotypical more often than not, and the existence of Lieutenant Norton — replacing one of the Erebus lieutenants — a minor character who is portrayed as a crossdresser, which was almost interesting when it was first teased, with a penchant for violence. Some of his actions could have been chalked up to lead poisoning etc. but it didn’t really land in my opinion.

The one thing I will say about Richler creating Franklin expedition OCs is that it doesn’t drag the names of real historical people through the mud, which is more than can be said of “The Terror” author Dan Simmons. Frankly, I saw a surprising amount of similarities between certain aspects of “Solomon Gursky” and “The Terror,” which made me wonder if Dimmons hadn’t read “Solomon Gursky” at some point. Unfortunately, any influence, if it is there at all, is limited to the all of the worst bits with none of the redeeming qualities of Richler’s writing.

I went into “Solomon Gursky” utterly blind, I knew “Jew on the Franklin expedition” as a premise and that was it, and it certainly is that, but it’s so much more too. Everything matters. “Solomon Gursky” is a big book with lots of characters and plots that are masterfully woven together. There are surprises around every corner, including the borderline magical realism presence of ravens as motif and harbinger, and a group of Jewish Inuit.

Image ID: Text from "Solomon Gursky" reading, "'Does it haunt your dreams?' the interviewer asked. 'Molly?' 'Cannibalism.' 'Well, I'lll tell ya, it kind of puts you off your prime rib. Like, you know, it's so good and sweet. Hardly any gristle.'" The Snapchat caption is three Rolling on the Floor Laughing emojis. End ID.
And of course it wouldn’t be a book about the Franklin expedition without cannibalism.

Some final warnings: Sex scenes, which are occasionally detailed in a way that make you wonder if the author didn’t have a fetish; plenty of nudity, both male and female; and some mentions of rape and suicide, but nothing explicit.

As I stated before, “Solomon Gursky” reaches some very weird depths, and is not without its share of problems, but I enjoyed it immensely and now I need everyone else to go read it so that I have someone to talk to about this frankly beautiful piece of insanity. The book seems to be out of print, but can be found from most used booksellers.

Image ID: Text from "Solomon Gursky" reading, "'Can you arrange for me to go through the Solomon Gursky file or not?' 'Yeah sure.' But the file had been stolen. The large manila envelope in the library was empty. And when Moses dragged out the old newspapers that dealt with the trials, he discovered that somebody had cut out the relevant stories with a razor blade. He was hooked." The Snapchat caption reads, "Hot damn, i'd be hooked too." End ID.

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Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu

Telling me something is gay historical fantasy is like, the fastest way to get my attention when it comes to getting me to read a book. I am gay, I love historical fiction, I love fantasy and the supernatural. Which is to say, when the English translation of “Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation”—“Mo Dao Zu Shi” in the original Chinese—was announced last year, I could not slam the preorder button fast enough. Volume 1 arrived in December and I fell in love instantly. Well, not quite instantly, I didn’t have time to properly read it until January, but my point still stands. The book is fantastic.

From the plot structure to the characters themselves, there is nothing that didn’t draw me in and this is only volume one of five. There are two interconnected plots that you follow through the book: 1. main character Wei Wuxian’s death in the first chapter and the backstory of how that came to be and 2. his resurrection some years later on the cusp of some sinister supernatural happenings. Both plots are really cleverly woven together in that you learn what you need to know of the past when it becomes relevant to the present day, this is done variously through internal monologue, spoken dialogue or actual flashback sequences. It’s great! 

To the characters, it’s very difficult to dislike a single character in the book, even when they’re antagonists, because they’re just so well done. I am particularly in love with how character development is established so quickly between past and present. I think my favorite example of this development is Lan Wangji, who we see predominantly from Wei Wuxian’s point of view in this first volume. Wei Wuxian knew how Lan Wangji acted when they were younger and in the present seeks to get similar reactions from him, but this backfires because, in the intervening years, Lan Wangji has grown and changed. We don’t see Lan Wangji’s internal development (at least not in this volume), but it is  so clear that growth has happened regardless of whether or not we’ve seen it and it’s just presented in a really excellent and effective way. 

The book is also just, really fun. There’s a great balance of what is, in truth, a rather heavy plot and humor. The writing is very good at playing to your emotions and it just feels incredibly human. It’s messy and complicated and it makes for an incredible story. 

If you’re wondering “where is the discussion of the gay shit?” It’s interwoven throughout the plot is where it is. “Grandmaster of Demon Cultivation” is very much slow burn when it comes to romance. There were other things going on in the past and there are other things going on in the present. The romance is by no means secondary, but it takes its time, volume one deals very much in obliviousness and pining/yearning. While the most explicit discussion of queerness is the in world homophobia and Wei Wuxian’s attempts use of that to his favor, there is, in my professional experience as a homosexual, a very clear queer yearning as well, it just doesn’t beat you over the head with it, which is fitting given the character it comes from. 

One final thing of note is the excellent glossary and character guide at the end of the book. The character guide breaks down Chinese naming conventions and why the same character might be referred to in different ways by different people, and the glossary explains everything from pronunciations to genre terms (danmei, xianxia, wuxia) to various terms that are staples of those genres and might be unfamiliar to a Western audience. I found a decent amount to be discernible through context, but those appendices were still massively helpful. If you were worried about being confused by the names or cultural context, don’t be, the book has got you covered. 

Volume 1 of “Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation” is available for purchase now and volumes 2 and 3 are currently available for preorder from a variety of sellers.

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Some Strange Disturbances: A Cold Winter’s Eve written by Craig Hurd-McKenney, feat. guest contributors

[Image ID: The cover of Some Strange Disturbances: A Cold Winter's Eve. Two figures are ice skating outdoors, Prescott and the Comtesse, Prescott has light brown skin and dark hair and is wearing a grey suit and a black bowler hat. The Comtesse is in a magenta dress with a white fur collar and a a matching feathered hat. The ice they are skating is cracking and beneath the ice is the shadow of a kelpie. The title "A Cold Winter's Eve" is displayed above this scene in a white and ice-blue color. The snapchat caption reads: "Spooky queers vol. 2.5a"

“Some Strange Disturbances” continues to be the gift that keeps on giving with the side story “A Cold Winter’s Eve,” a side side story and mini anthology.  

We see our protagonists, Prescott, Delilah, the Comtesse and Brandt, gathered together on Christmas Eve, it is following dinner, prepared by Brandt, and they have gathered in the parlor to share spooky ghost stories. While the framing story as a whole is written by Craig Hurd-McKenny, author of the main series, each of the stories told by the characters is written and illustrated by a guest author. There are seven stories in total, Prescott, Delilah and the Comtesse each telling two and Brandt telling one. 

All the stories are stunning and haunting in their own ways. I think my favorite is the second one told by Prescott, about a young man named Theo, who is haunted by the ghost of his lover Silas through the new telephone that was installed just after his death. It should be noted that there are stores that include racially and homophobia motivated murders. The murderers do get what is coming to them, but be careful if that is something you are sensitive to. 

Lastly, I want to talk about Brandt and his story. Brandt is mute and, as such, his story is told entirely without dialogue. Delilah, who we learn early on in the book has a limited knowledge of sign language, is the one who translates the story for their group, and translating sign language to the print form of visual only story telling is inspired. We don’t hear Delilah’s overlay telling of the story, we just get the visuals. It’s still showing Brandt’s disability through the structure of the comic. 

It is definitely worthwhile to pick up alongside the main story and I am very much looking forward to “Some Strange Disturbances: Nob’s Tale,” which is meant to be a companion piece to “A Cold Winter’s Eve” and is part of the HSP 2022 catalogue that is currently being kickstarted. The Kickstarter ends on November 4th, so be sure to jump on it soon (or sign up to get reminders for when it’s close to ending)!

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Some Strange Disturbances written by Craig Hurd-McKenney

[Image ID: two thin graphic novels laying overlapped on a desk. The cover of the one on top shows a circle of people at the base with their hands on a table surrounded by candles. There are also candles in the middle of the table. Rising from those candles is a green skeletal specter in a hooded robe. In the robe is the book title "Some Strange Disturbances" followed by the last names of the author and illustrators "Hurd-McKenney, Gervasio and Aon" in the bottom left corner the price of the book is listed as $9.99. The volume below is in shades of Blue and White with a few gold chain accents. The central figure is a dark haired girl surrounded flowers and above her is the snout of a dog like creature. In the top left corner the title is listed as "Some Strange Disturbances #2: The Lunchroom Under the Arch." End ID]

Queer Victorian horror. Three words and you instantly have my attention. Furthermore, the graphic novel format is a perfect structure for “monster of the week” style storytelling, which is more or less what we have with “Some Strange Disturbances.” In volume one, “The Rat King of Bedlam” they battle a rat king (the creature, not just a particularly regal rat) and in volume two “The Lunchroom Under the Arch” they get a two for one deal with a real horror and a faked horror.

I should back up. Let’s start with who “they” is and what they are doing. “They” is a group of three queer individuals in 1895 London. In volume one, in addition to battling a rat king, we are introduced to our protagonists and they are introduced to one another. We have Prescott Mayfair, a white gay man who in is more or less closeted and struggling with it; Delilah Quinton, a young, asexual Black woman who is in the patronage of a Lord and Lady who see themselves as white saviors; and the Comtesse, a trans woman whose father thinks she is possessed and has her institutionalized. Volume one, is just as much about them meeting as it is about the rat king, but the end of the story they have created their own found family, which even includes the guard from Bedlam who had been set to watch over the Comtesse.

[Image ID: Two panels the first is the interior of the Comtesse's antique shop. Delilah, a Black woman with short tight ring curls is holding a glass of champagne possibly and speaking to the Comtesse, a tall woman with carefully styled wavy hair, who is also holding a glass. Delilah says, "I must say, Comtesse, the store is lovely." The next panel is a close up of the Comtesse, who replies: "I so did have to find a use for all of Duddy's money, the payoff for burying my old self in the fire. It's best to live, and live well now, in my new life. That's what I intend to do, parents or no." The Snapchat caption reads: "I'm so happy for her" followed by the sob emoji. End ID]
[Image ID: Two comic panels, the first is of a London city street. There are people walking on a side walk against buildings and a horse-drawn cab is coming down the street from the carriage a speech bubble emerges and Prescott Mayfair speaks: "Brandt, I do so hope we're passed the indignity I put you through at Bedlam, knocking you out cold like that." The next panel cuts to inside the cab where Prescott and Brandt are sitting next to each other. Prescott is wearing a suit with a bowler had and a thin mustache. Brand has a very bushy mustache connected to sideburns and a top hat. Brandt has one arm over Precott's shoulder, motion lines indicate that he is patting Prescott's arm. Brandt's other held up in front of him as are both of Prescott's. Prescott continues speaking: "You are important to the Comtesse, and thus important to me. I hope you know this." The snapchat caption below the two panels reads, in all caps "Oh it's that Brandt." and then switches to sentence case for "The Comtesse wooed her jailor, love it." End ID.]

I know I called this “monster of the week” style storytelling, and it is, but there is an overarching plot thread that ties each volume together too. In volume two we see the specter (not a literal specter in this case) of the Comtesse’s mother return in flashbacks and ties to a medallion that is found at the scene of the haunting in the titular lunchroom, part of which turns out to be staged. This remains something that isn’t completely resolved by the end of the story and holds the threads for what will happen in volume three and seems to centrally involve the Comtesse.

[Image ID: Four panels. The first panel is a close up of a medallion, the pattern on it is a skull in and oval within a rectangle and a small diamond and star both above and below the rectangle. The next panel is a close of of a man's nose and eyes. His nose is rather bulbous and his eyes are shocked and wide. Panel three zooms out to show the man pulling the medallion over his head and ratty top hat his eyes are shaky and unfocused. In panel four the man seems coherent again with the medallion around his neck, he turns to a young woman with her hair done up in a bun and a high collared dress and says "Ya think you're better'n me, miss?" The snapchat caption reads: "Wuh oh" End ID]

Volume two also introduces us to new characters, some that will stay and some that don’t. Most notable of these is Nobuyoshi Yamamoto, or Nob, a Japanese man and sumo wrestler who is Prescott’s love interest. It is only through Nob’s actions that they win the day in volume two.

[Image ID: Screenshot of text, the lines that are not the focus are scribbled out in pink. The visible text reads: "The scene simply wrote itsellf. Prescott, in an opium stupor, is running to a meeting and slams right into this sumo wrestler. A sumo wrestler who, in that moment, steals Prescott's heart and his decorum." The Snapchat caption reads, in all caps, "Oh yes." End ID]

Something I really appreciated as someone invested in queer history, is the detail that went into portraying everything. We have afterwards in both volumes that discuss and give insight into the culture of the day. Volume one has sections on Fannie and Stella, two trans individuals; race and the practice of human zoos; and the trials of Oscar Wilde; and volume two discusses how the character of Nob came to be along with the cultural context of Japanese people in London during the period.

All in all, this is a thoroughly researched and beautifully written (and illustrated) series that I would highly recommend to anyone with an interest in Victorian era history, horror, queer comics or any combination of the three.

The first two volumes are for sale here, and, in exciting news, the Kickstarter for Headless Shakespeare Press’ 2022 publishing catalogue, which includes “Some Strange Disturbances: Nob’s Tale” and “Some Strange Disturbances: The Demon Bride,” went live on October 4th! Now could not be a better time to get into this series.

[Image ID: On a black background is an image Victorian illustration of a scene in a church. There are men standing on both sides and in the center a man in fine dress holds the hand of a woman in a coffin that is being propped up, with a priest behind them in a mockery of a wedding. Above this image is the text: "To be continued in Some Strange Disturbances: The Demon Bride." Below the image is the Snapchat caption: "Feral. I simply  cannot wait."

Coming later in the month from me will be a mini review of “Some Strange Disturbances: A Cold Winter’s Eve,” a SSD side story and short comic anthology.

If you enjoy my content and would like to see more, please consider buying me a Kofi or supporting me on Patreon!

Even Penelope Faltered: Marriages, Monuments, and Metropoleis in Erika Behrisch Elce’s “Lady Franklin of Russell Square”

A simple beige cover with a circular date stamp reading "London W.C. Feb 9" on the upper middle left side by the spine.

In the upper right hand corner is a while banner that reads "Stonehouse Publishing Originals"

The title is in the very center in a handwriting script "Lady Franklin of Russell Square" and below this in blue block text is "A novel by Erika Behrisch Elce"

Review by Kathryn Stutz

Nearly three years ago, Snap Book Reviews published a review of the novel “The Terror,” by Dan Simmons. Lovely and scathing, this review pointed out that Simmons’s massive brick of a book, which covers the events of the lost Franklin expedition of 1845 in exhaustive detail, served as the source material for a far-superior 2018 television adaptation that manages to depict the same historical events with both greater accuracy and also far less racism and misogyny baked into the narrative.

The story of the ill-fated Captain Sir John Franklin, lost in the Arctic with two ships and over one hundred unfortunate British sailors, inevitably raises these questions of racism (against Inuit groups who were blamed in the British press for Franklin’s demise) and misogyny (against the numerous women impacted by the disaster, both bereaved female relations in England and Inuit women who were questioned by explorers searching for Franklin). Representing these Victorian bigotries in fiction has proven a difficult task—and Simmons failed to live up to this challenge.

In 2018, however, two new Franklin fictions offered audiences a different view of this historical disaster: the excellent television show mentioned above (AMC’s “The Terror,” produced by Soo Hugh and David Kajganich) and Erika Behrisch Elce’s epistolatory novel “Lady Franklin of Russell Square,” written in the form of letters to the absent Sir John Franklin from his wife, Jane.

In the very first line of the Afterword to her novel, Elce (herself a scholar of the Franklin expedition and editor of the historical Lady Franklin’s letters) lays out a guiding thematic principle for her literary offering: “Some of have suggested that Lady Franklin never really loved Sir John,” Elce writes, “I disagree.”

The title “Afterward” is circled in green and the annotation “Lesson 1: Always Read the Afterward” is added above in glowing blue letters. The paragraph below begins with the underlined sentence “Some of have suggested that Lady Franklin never really loved Sir John. I disagree,” after which the author continues: “though the historical record is imperfect in finding proof for either position. As most biographers acknowledge, Lady Franklin destroyed or altered so much of her personal correspondence and private writing that it remains largely a matter of speculation. Given her intense, prolonged, excruciating efforts to find Sir John after 1847, I choose to believe in her love for him.” Below this text, a pale blue annotation on a black background reads “Too often they forget love: I am too rarely accused of loving you. Too often they forget fear: I am too rarely accused of being afraid in your behalf.”

Those who have read other historical fictions about the Franklin Expedition, from Sten Nadolny’s idiosyncratic and introspective German novel “The Discovery of Slowness,” to Dominique Fortier’s (only loosely historical) found-footage French-Canadian collage “On the Proper Use of Stars,” may already have noticed that few fiction authors see Lady Franklin and her husband Sir John as soulmates. More often Lady Franklin seems, at best, indifferent to her husband (or, at worst, actively malevolent), and Sir John’s eyes stray from his lady wife to other women.

“Lady Franklin of Russell Square” begs to differ.

As written by Elce, Lady Franklin is misanthropic, judgmental, clever, passionate, and angry. She often seems to rage against the world, but she always, always loves her missing husband. The novel’s central themes, about Lady Franklin’s legacy, make it painfully clear that this protagonist knows she is being misunderstood: “Too often they forget love,” Lady Franklin writes. “I am too rarely accused of loving you. Too often they forget fear: I am too rarely accused of being afraid in your behalf.” It’s a compelling idea, and an innovative one.

Another mark of Elce’s great talent for showing historical research in her fiction is that the factual errors are often relatively minor. In contrast to other Franklin novels like “On the Proper Use of Stars,” where important names are misspelled or even invented whole-cloth, “Lady Franklin of Russell Square” pays very close attention to historical figures and the timelines of their lives, using real historical newspaper clippings to anchor the narrative.

Regrettably, one of the few mistakes calculated to disturb me in particular comes at the very beginning of the story, where an off-hand remark implies that Lady Franklin didn’t speak Latin or Greek, when in reality the classical world and its languages were a key part of her self-education, from when she began learning Latin at nineteen, to her travels through Greece as a newlywed in the 1830s.

Dark green and lavender underlining highlights the quotation, “France and Italy were much the same and still worth the effort, but America waggled its gilded fingers and beckoned to both me and Eleanor, with all its clanking, shiny progress and youthful vigour. In between its grand metropolises (metropoli?) It was, truly, ‘beautiful with spacious skies,’ but the cities were surprisingly dirty and cramped for such young places.” Above this quotation, black annotation on a white background reads, “So the word ‘metropolis’ is Greek, from the words mētro– (meaning ‘mother’) and polis (meaning ‘city’). In Greek, the plural of polis is ‘poleis,’ and when you transfer it over to Latin, it’s ‘poles.’ NEVER ‘poli.’” At the bottom of the image, white cursive text on a blue brush-stroke background reads, “Lady Franklin knew both Greek and Latin!”

Lady Franklin’s interest in the classical world is important to know, in this context, because of how several of the novel’s subplots twine together to form an intricate picture of Lady Franklin’s life in the 1840s and 1850s. One of my favorite narrative threads in “Russell Square” depicts Lady Franklin’s interaction with her nephew-by-marriage, the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who offers Lady Franklin a copy of his 1842 poem “Ulysses.”

First, an annotation in purple on a white background prints a quotation from poetry, reading, “…this gray spirit yearning in desire / To follow knowledge like a sinking star, Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.” Below this, the text on the page is underlined in lavender, reading, “I want to follow knowledge like a sinking star—but what is left for me? Only knowledge of my self—every other option is simply scandalous.” Finally, at the bottom, an annotation in white on a black background reads, “Quoting from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem ‘Ulysses’ (written in 1833 and published in 1842) inspired by Homer’s Odyssey and Dante’s Divine Comedy.”

Tennyson would go on to compose a famous four-line epitaph for Sir John Franklin:

“Not here! the white North has thy bones; and thou

            Heroic sailor soul,

Art passing on thine happier voyage now

            Toward no earthly pole.”

Tennyson’s earlier work, “Ulysses,” draws upon classical literature from Homer’s “Odyssey” to the “Divine Comedy” of Dante to speak in the voice of the Greek mythic hero Odysseus, a captain who, like Sir John, spent many years lost at sea, after sailing to Troy to help recover Helen of Troy, the “face who launched a thousand ships.”

At the top of one page, pink glowing letters read “Complex Classical Questions.” Beneath, a white annotation on a black background reads “Is Sir John the Odysseus (Ulysses) to Lady Franklin’s Faithful Penelope?” and then the pink glowing letters resume, reading “OR,” beneath which pink letters ask, “Is he Helen of Troy to Lady Franklin’s Agamemnon?” The printed text on the page beneath this begins with the end of a paragraph, which reads, “—my siren song, you called it, that kept you from your heroic destiny, at home on our own little happy isle. Well, where are you know? Whose siren song fills your ears?” The paragraph breaks, and the next paragraph continues, “Third, I am no Penelope, because I know that you are not Ulysses—you are Helen, that saucy beauty whose passion for another launched a thousand ships.” One quotation, further down this second paragraph is underlined in lavender and circled in white, purple, and pink: “If you are Helen, I suppose I must be Agamemnon, the angry, jilted lover.”

Over the course of numerous fictive letters spread out over many years, Elce’s Lady Franklin engages richly with the myths of Odysseus, casting herself first as the hero’s ever-faithful wife Penelope, and then she begins to chafe at the notion of being “called ‘pious’ and ‘devoted,’” and recasts herself instead in other ancient roles—the vengeful Lord Agamemnon, hell-bent upon finding Helen, his brother’s wife; or even as Odysseus (Ulysses) himself. For a classicist like me, this is a wonderfully complex tapestry of meta-narrative and metaphor.

Despite one or two initial errors—and some rather antagonistic depiction of individuals whom Lady Franklin once considered her close friends, like the explorer Sir James Clark Ross (shown here as vainglorious and lacking in compassion) and Lady Franklin’s niece Sophia Cracroft (shown here as a devotee of pulp novels, which can’t help but seem like an overreaction against the radical Austenite Sophia of “On the Proper Use of Stars”)—Elce’s “Lady Franklin of Russell Square” ultimately won me over. Unique among current Franklin fictions as a novel that truly considers the lived experience of a loving widow, it’s well worth a read.

Many thanks to Thomas for giving me the opportunity to share these thoughts and impressions! If you’re interested in hearing me speak more about historical fiction and Lady Franklin, do come to the panel “Who Tells Your Story?: (Mis)representing the Past in Works of Historical Fiction” at the r/AskHistorians Digital Conference: [Deleted] & Missing History, from October 19th through October 21st.

The Whale: A Love Story by Mark Beauregard

The cover of "The Whale: A Love Story by Mark Beauregard"

The back ground is blue, "The" and "A Love Story" are written in pink all caps font, while "Whale" is in white and written larger. 
Below that is a large white whale over a small house done in pink, at the bottom is the author's name, Mark Beauregard.

Snapchat caption reads: "Gay historical fiction my love" with a heart eyes emoji at the end of the line

For those lovers of “Moby Dick” and Herman Melville, “The Whale: A Love Story” is a delightful and compelling work of historical fiction that peers into the life of Melville during the period in which he was writing “Moby Dick,” struggling with debts, and had a close relationship with fellow author Nathaniel Hawthorne. However, prior knowledge of “Moby Dick” and Melville isn’t really required to read the book. I knew very little about Melville and Hawthorne as authors going into this and I have not read “Moby Dick,” and my knowledge of it primarily comes from cultural osmosis. As such, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in queer history, historical romances, and maritime or literary history. 

Melville as a character, is wholly relatable and horribly embarrassing in equal measures. If we were to rate him on the scale of distinguished/functional/disaster gay, he would be solidly disaster. You want both to cheer him on in his work and pursuit of Hawthorne’s friendship and smack him over the head and beg him to please use some common sense.

Quote: "...but now that he had almost completed the book, he saw that it was badly conceived and poorly written."

Snapchat caption (or snaption): "God, what a mood"
Quote: "Hawthorne said he would be honored to sleep wherever Herman would suffer him to lay his head, a comment Herman found excruciating." 

Snapchat caption: "Herman Melville is a disaster gay of the highest order"

It is a marked difference from Hawthorne’s own personality, which is reserved and measured even in his exuberance. Hawthorne is also very much influenced by a Puritanical upbringing and struggles to place his feelings for Melville alongside his feelings for his wife. 

Quote: "Herman realized with heart-stopping joy that he needed by turn his head slightly to kiss Hawthorne."

Snapchat caption: No no no, that is a very bad idea Herman

This is the only book I think I’ve ever read where I was begging the main couple not to kiss, because I could tell that it would spell disaster. That’s not to say that the book doesn’t give us a thorough and beautiful portrayal of Hawthorne and Melville’s relationship though, it’s just a very 19th century gay relationship and all the caution and trepidation that could entail. All of the tender longing and yearning is there from both parties (though we get rather more from Melville, since it is his point of view), and we are given a delightful ending that had me pressing my face into my book to muffle my quiet screaming. 

Quote: "Can't you just say plainly how you feel?" / He [Hawthorne] turned around to face Herman again. "I know that you are unlike anyone I have ever met. When I am around you, I feel at liberty to express myself completely as I see fit, because I am quite sure you will understand me. It's a freedom I have longed for, but I also know that what you want from me, I cannot give." 

Snapchat caption: "Oof, that hits me right in the gay"

The epilogue (which should most definitely be read) gives us a look into the research done by the author, and it was fascinating how he worked to incorporate the letter correspondence between Melville and Hawthorne that was interspersed throughout the chapters. Most of the letters from Melville to Hawthorne (with a handful of exceptions) are real letters. However, none of Hawthorne’s are, because we don’t have any of his letters from this period. What the author did instead, was use the letters of Hawthorne’s we do have to create the fictional replies we see from Hawthorne in the book, which I think is a terribly clever way to get around the missing letter problem.

A genuinely lovely and tender piece of fiction, I would highly recommend it to anyone interested. The book can be found in a variety of locations online, including new and used through Bookshop.org. 

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The Convert by Stefan Hermans, translated by David McKay

The cover of "The Convert" by Stefan Hertmans. It is noted as a novel and by the author of the book "War and Turpentine." The cover image is a close up of a young woman's face from a medieval painting. The paint has started to crack.

The snapchat caption reads

I bought this on a whim because it sounded like the sort of historical fiction I would enjoy; historical fiction based in historical fact. I was completely correct. “The Convert” is a fictional representation of what the life of Vigdis Adelaïs, a well-born 11th century Norman girl who leaves her home and family to run away with the Jewish boy (David Todros) she fell in love with, might have been like.

A picture of one of the primary documents on Vigdis', a letter of recommendation from a rabbi to help her travel. 

The snapchat caption reads "Primary! Documents!"

While the genre of historical fiction relies heavily on speculation in general, I draw attention to it here in particular because the narrative does. The novel blends Vigdis/Hamoutal’s journey as she flees her home, converts to a new religion, and, later, searches for her children, with the journey the author/narrator takes to retrace the possible path that she took in the 21st century. We never forget for a moment that this is a real person and that there are significant gaps in her narrative, which is constructed on two document fragments that are located in the Cairo Genizah Collection at the University of Cambridge. 

Quote from page 63 "Standing on the sandy riverbank, I'm assailed by fresh doubts about their escape route. Why wouldn't they have been smuggled out of the city in a nondescript boat by a helpful Jewish fisherman who lived nearby? They could have followed the looping course of the Seine southward. No, then they might have been discovered and betrayed at any time. I imagine their pursuers conducting a systematic sweep of the river."

The snapchat caption reads: "I love how the author uses the gaps in the historical record to build the narrative!"

Now, with the whole story, past and present, being told by our author/narrator and weaving between past, present and historical background, there is a bit of jumping around in time throughout the whole book. If you aren’t used to reading novels that play with narrative structure there may be a few moments of confusion at first, but those don’t last long and, for me, they came mostly from the fact that you are dropped directly into the middle of the story, before you are taken back to the beginning of the story in chapter two.

A quote from the book, "In the Norman port of Rouen on a bright autumn day in the year 1070, a girl is born." 

The snapchat caption reads: "Oh excellent it's backstory time. I love the time jumps here. There's always a risk of that being confusing, but it's not at all"

Otherwise, the past and present narratives are told more or less concurrently.

Quote: I'd searched for freighters, but they never seemed to follow Hamoutal's route either. Imagining I would re-enact her voyage as accurately as possible, I'd overlooked how completed the world has changed."

Snapchat caption: "The overlay of modern path and historical path has been incredibly evocative."

It should be noted that this story is, ultimately, a tragedy, though our heroine has her moments of happiness throughout. The backdrop for this story is the First Crusade, which was not a time that was kind to the Jewish people, and Hamoutal’s woes are compounded by being a fugitive as her parents have people searching for her. Particular warnings in these veins include: graphic depictions of antisemitic violence, including pogroms; multiple instances of explicit sexual assault; and child death. I do feel like the sexual assault was a bit excessive as there were three instances of assault for Hamoutal alone, not counting all the background mentions. Two of those three instances, in my opinion, could have been left as instances of physical violence (which they already were without the assault). 

Although Hamoutal’s story is ultimately a tragic one, the story as whole does not end tragically with her death. It ends instead with her resurrection through the continued study of the two fragments that give us glimpses into her life as well as through how our author/narrator has resurrected her path through the world with his own journey and the legacy she and her little family left on the world. A bittersweet ending perhaps, but that is what I love about history, historical fiction and research: the ability to give new life to a person who has been hidden in the historical record.

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Freiheit! The White Rose Graphic Novel by Andrea Grosso Ciponte

Cover of "Freiheit! The White Rose Graphic Novel." Three people (left to right, Sophie School, Alexander Schmorell and Hans Scholl) sand in front of a Nazi insignia that has a white paint smear through it. Sophia is holding books, Alexander has a paint brush in his lapel and Hans is holding a paint can. In front of them is crouched another man, Christoph Probst, who is holding a pamphlet.
In the bottom left corner of the cover there is a note in red stating that this is an uncorrected proof and not for sale.

I was really excited when I first heard about “Freiheit! The White Rose Graphic Novel,” in part because it’s a part of World War II history that I’ve been interested in, but haven’t had the opportunity to read much about. I’d previously read several short articles about Sophie Scholl—one of the book’s lead protagonists—but they had been sparse with the details about her involvement with a larger group, making her seem like a lone martyr figure. I hadn’t even heard the name “White Rose” until I picked up this graphic novel, which, I think, makes the book all the more important and timely given the importance of history in resisting fascism.

Two panels. One partially obscured, shows a formal portrait of Sophie Scholl and her name in her passport. The next panel shows Sophie sitting crosslegged in a train car, saying "I'm a student at the university." 

The Snapchat caption says "In all the stuff I've read about Sophie Scholl, I'd never actually seen much about the resistance group she was part of."

The book is very engaging and pulls you into the story immediately right in the middle of the action with Sophie and her brother Hans dropping a stack of leaflets down from the top floor a building into the main hall, before jumping back to a flashback that shows you how everything began, how a small group of friends (Sophie and Hans Scholl, Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell and Willi Graf) eventually became the White Rose. 

The story then moves quickly, following Sophie, into her discovery of her brother’s and their other friends involvements with the White Rose, and how they continue that through their military service, until they are eventually caught. Despite how quickly things move, it doesn’t feel in anyway rushed. The book has a very artistic flow to it, there’s no real background exposition to speak of, drawing your focus to the art, dialogue and the limited quotations the serve as background for various scenes. 

My particular favorite quotation used is the English translation of the song “Die Gedaken sind frei,” (“Thoughts are Free”), that is overlaid on a scene of Sophie working in an ammunitions factory.

Full page spread of Sophie working in a munitions factory, she is holding a shell and there are more laid out in front of her. 

There is no dialogue, but the text overlay is partial English lyrics of the song "Die Gedanken sind frei." They read, "No person can know them/No hunter can shoot them/ With powder and lead/Thoughts are free.*"

The asterisk points to a footnote that reads "'Die Gedanken sind frei' traditional revolutionary song, forbidden during Nazism."

The Snapchat caption reads, "I learned this song at a German summer camp and had no clue about the history behind it."

I will say I was a touch confused by that scene as I wasn’t entirely sure of what I was supposed to take away from it. It’s a lovely scene and gorgeously illustrated, as is the whole book, but it wasn’t clear to me if it was meant to imply that Sophie was doing sabotage work. There is discussion earlier in about encouraging sabotage in their leaflets alongside passive resistance, so I had wondered if this was tying into that, but I can’t say I know for sure since there’s no background exposition to explain the scene. I think some added points of additional exposition would have been nice, but as a narrative the story does hold up just fine without them. 

Something that I’ve always found true when it comes to World War II studies is how angry and upset and heartbroken I feel when presented with personal narratives, be they biographical or autobiographical. That emotional pull is something that “Freiheit!” does incredibly effectively. There is an incredible amount of characterization for such a short book, we see Sophie living her life as a regular student, we see Christoph with his wife and children, we see the Scholl family’s response to their father being arrested, and you know through all of it how it’s going to end. Arrest and execution. 

But the book doesn’t leave you on a sad note, it ends on a hopeful one, with the fact that the British took the final pamphlet produced by the White Rose and used airplanes to drop 5 million copies across German cities. This drives home that what the White Rose did mattered and, especially in todays day and age, that activism matters. Not everyone can make the sort of sacrifices that the White Rose did, but what they preached, passive resistance against a terrible “norm” is something anyone can do.

A panel showing the shadow of an airplane in the sky dropping leaflets. The adjacent text reads "In July 1943 the British dropped five million fliers quoting from the sixth White Rose leaflet on cities across Germany."

The snapchat caption reads: "Words live on."

“Freiheit! The White Rose Graphic Novel” is being published through Plough and will be released in February 2021. 

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