Historical fiction, oxymoronic concept that it is, invites authors to examine the constructed, coincidental, and dubious claims to verisimilitude any narrative of history makes. The freedom afforded to the author by embracing the fiction of the work—the self-aware rejection of any claim to verisimilitude in exchange for a good story—is what makes good literary historical fiction so rewarding to read. Knopf has turned out two new tales of the old by established and powerful mid-career writers Emily Schultz and Emma Richler.
Schultz’s Men Walking on Water takes place in and around Prohibition-era Detroit. It is a tale of rum-runners and gangsters that is mercifully fresh in that it actually has very little to do with rum-runners and gangsters. The book is far less about gunfights and defiant binges than it is about the day-to-day realities of living in troubled times. Schultz’s Detroit is not a more refined romantic age where the good people just want a drink. People are terrible. Other people are less terrible. There is money to be made in between and there are consequences for actions.
Such is the thoughtful bent to this novel, with its attention to marginalized and already-suffering people further punished by the politics of the era, and its host of strong female characters. The rum-soaked noir and Tommy-gunnery of most Prohibition-era novels is largely absent here, and it’s a welcome change. An ambitious novel, Men Walking on Water doesn’t focus on any one story, and is, perhaps, most concerned with the character of “Detroit.” This might be a mistake, though, as it causes the book to feel cluttered. What could potentially be a beautiful, small, almost quiet story in what is typically loud territory instead becomes a large, swirling group of events that happen around one another with pages and pages of historical factoids wedged in between them. While the argument could be made that semi-connected and parallel but not necessarily intertwining happenings are what history actually is, the book defeats this line of thought by making too-frequent use of coincidence. The storylines intersect at odd times and just enough so that everything is tied together, but not enough so that it feels completely cohesive. A powerful and thoughtful consideration of a place and era that has been represented often but rarely well in fiction, Schultz’s novel contains moments of contemplative brilliance but is hampered by its own structure.
Be My Wolff by Emma Richler is a novel about Rachel and Zach, two (kind of) siblings who also happen to be perfect for one another. Zach, a boxing prodigy, is adopted by Rachel’s family and the two are raised together as siblings. Trouble looms as inevitably they fall in love, or perhaps into something deeper and more connected than mere love. They become something very strange and connected and perfect—and deeply unsettling to those around them.
There is fallout from their relationship, of course, and the book dives deep into considerations of social taboos. Very deep, actually—the book gets stuck on pondering incest for rather a long time—but when Richler lets her characters walk around their world and (invented) histories a bit more instead of always gazing inward at the Zach/Rachel dynamic, there is quite a lot to see. Be My Wolff is a beautiful book, where myths and the self-referentially invented identities and histories the characters give themselves have as much impact on the world as do the real historical figures and events that Richler weaves into the tale.
While a book about history and incest sounds potentially troubling, the novel is actually very fun—amid the considerations of personal and public histories, interconnections, social scrutiny, and so on, there are moments of pure myth. This is a novel where the Baba Yaga exists and can enter the conversation at any moment. A being of myth fits easily into conversations for Richler, and she handles both the surreal and the banal equally well. While the figures of myth typically choose to chime in and chat about social perceptions of incest and taboos (of course) and don’t open up any particularly new considerations for the book, their presence is nonetheless a very funny and fun application of material that makes no claim to historical veracity, simply in the name of good storytelling. It’s a small capturing of magic in a not-strictly magical world, and Richler is to be commended for her mastery of the space between the invented and the real.