Anachronisms & Inaccuracies
My friend, author Rabbi Ilene Schneider recently wrote a post on her blog called “Blueberries in Hammonton in 1920? – Doubtful,” which discusses researching something that seemed to her to be an historical inaccuracy from the TV show “Boardwalk Empire.” Such anachronisms can ruin watching movies, TV shows and of course, reading novels. I’m sure that like you, I’ve come up against these kinds of problems of inaccuracies with many novels; most of which have to do with areas I know quite a bit about. Of course, even when that is the case, before I say anything about these problems, I’ll start researching the items to make sure my initial impression is correct. Two of my most prominent examples are as follows:
When I read the novel “Melting the Snow on Hester Street” by Daisy Waugh, I couldn’t believe just how many mistakes I found. For example, while the author knew that many Jewish immigrants worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory (the place of the huge 1911 fire that killed 146 people, mostly women), that the author couldn’t get someone to fact check that immigrant Jews wouldn’t be speaking Hebrew to one another, but rather Yiddish, was surprising to me. This seemed to me to be one of the more easily checked points she got wrong.
Other mistakes were less obvious. For example, there’s the important heirloom necklace with the distinctive charm on it. The author said that charm was a “hamsa,” which is a hand-shaped charm that’s supposed to ward off the evil eye (like the one in the picture here). While many Jews wear such things today, most of the immigrants to the USA in the early 20th century were from Eastern Europe. Since this symbol is Arabic in its origin, only Jews from North Africa would have worn these back then. The blending of the Sephardic and Ashkenazi traditions is something that is relatively new, mostly through the melting pot of Jews coming to Israel and the various cultures borrowing from each other. Another one I particularly liked, but that most people wouldn’t notice, was one scene where a woman decides to make her husband a traditional Jewish breakfast. One of the items on the menu was a dish called shakshuka. Once again, the author included a Sephardic item that an immigrant from Eastern Europe couldn’t have known about.
Another time, someone sent me a copy of his self-published novel, which takes place in Israel. According to his biography, the author lives here in Israel, but I assume he doesn’t live in Jerusalem. In case he does live in Jerusalem, I have to assume that he and his family are extremely healthy and never had to step inside the hospital where the opening scene of his book takes place. Unfortunately, I am all too familiar with the hospital in question. Many years ago I was hospitalized there, and since then, I’ve had both very close friends and relatives hospitalized and/or treated there. Therefore, when an author writes that a patient’s room is on the fourth floor, I know that this can’t be right. That floor, despite its number, is the main entrance floor, and I know for an absolute fact that there are no patient rooms on that floor – and there never have been any. When the author then wrote that the protagonist bought a book “downstairs” in the hospital gift shop, I balked completely. That hospital’s gift shop is on the fourth floor, so you can’t go down to the gift shop if your (fictitious) room is on the fourth floor. Aside from that, I have my doubts that the gift shop even carries the type of book the protagonist bought, and it is even more doubtful that they’d have it in English.
While I was saddened that Ms. Waugh’s fact checkers needed to be fact-checked themselves, the inaccuracies of this other book actually angered me. How difficult would it have been for this Israeli writer to take a day-trip to Jerusalem to visit this hospital, and get his facts straight? Even if the writer lives in one of the furthest corners of the country, one day would be the very most he’d need. Even if that is impossible, he must know at least one person in Jerusalem who could have checked this out for him. Baring all that, the very least he could have done was pick up the phone and spoken to someone at the hospital. I’m sorry, but that’s just laziness on the part of the writer, and that is unacceptable.
Most recently, I tried to read the book Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly, which became a huge hit. While the writing was good, I initially became annoyed that the author seemed to ignore the fact that the Nazis’ #1 target during WWII were the Jews, I kept reading, attempting to be tolerant and understanding that although Jews arguably suffered more than others under the regime, others suffered as well. However, I gave up when the author had one of her characters remember walking past a Jewish bakery in Warsaw during the winter, and the special item that the Jews sold for the Hanukkah holiday. Well, the description was for what we call today a “sufganiya” which is essentially a jelly filled doughnut. Sure. Why not? Here in Israel, these are the most popular Hanukkah treat. Well, I’ll tell you why not. Because – once again – Ashkenazi Jews didn’t make these for Hanukkah back then, because this particular item for that holiday came from Mizrachi and Sephardic Jews! So once again, someone gave an author bad information about Jewish traditions that didn’t exist during the era the writer was talking about!
If you are beginning to wonder where this rant was going, now is where you’ll find out. You see, I’ve been dabbling with the idea for a novel of my own for a few years now. Our family has many fascinating, old stories that I’ve recounted to people on many occasions. I don’t know how true most of them are, and I’m sure they’ve morphed over time to be more interesting. The thing is, often when I tell the stories people tell me I should write a book about them. Until a few months ago, I always laughed these suggestions off. Seriously, how many books are there about Jews leaving or forced out of their homes, only to overcome a myriad of struggles until they reached the ‘promised land’ of America? Too many, I’m sure, by far.
That was until I read about an author who decided to write a fictional novel about one of her real family’s long-standing mysteries. Since she couldn’t solve the mystery in real life, she decided she would solve it through fiction instead. Isn’t that a brilliant idea? Well, I thought so. Mostly because this immediately reminded me of a family mystery of my own, and suddenly I started thinking how that family mystery could be the perfect thing to bring all our family stories together into an interesting novel – one that is different from all the rest. However, I can’t allow myself to be lazy like that author I mentioned with his self-published book that I couldn’t finish reading. I want to make sure that what I write has no anachronisms, and no inaccuracies. Oh, sure, I’ll let myself take poetic license here and there, but there’s no way I’ll let things into my book that are glaringly wrong. That’s a promise to both me, and my potential future readers!
Now, how do I stop getting overly involved in the research and start spending more time writing? I will gratefully welcome any suggestions!