Braids of Glory

Cover © 2010 Barry Deutsch. 

My niece E and her cousin L, both 8 years old, each received Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword for Chanukah — but not before Uncle Brian read it... twice.

The graphic novel — about, to quote the cover copy, "Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl" — is a fun, touching yarn no matter your age, gender, or heritage. Author Barry Deutsch, who produced Hereville as a webcomic (and self-published a paper version as well) before Abrams released a handsome hardcover edition [$15.95 US; ISBN 978-0-8109-8422-6] through its Amulet Books imprint, is after all no more writing about or exclusively for himself than most authors of children's and young-adult fiction, nor is the best of such fiction restricted to that nominal target audience.

Fruma and Mirka in a pair of logic battles from Pgs. 1 & 4 of Hereville © 2010 Barry Deutsch.

Mirka Hirschberg is a smart, imaginative lass who lives in a rather isolated community called Hereville and chafes at some of its expectations for her. She's less interested in becoming a wife than a dragonslayer but obviously respects and holds dear many rituals. We get the sense that she's not a rebel for rebellion's sake, just independent and adventuresome.

Her mother has passed on, and Mirka lives with her Poppa, stepmother Fruma, brother Zindel, and many sisters, including stepsister Rochel (younger by just a year), with whom she shares a room. Zindel is regularly bullied by a couple of other boys, and one day after sticking up for him the spunky Mirka finds herself running through the woods straight to a previously unseen house, quite strange and with a lavish garden, that appears to be home to a witch. Stealing a grape from the garden puts Mirka on the bad side of the witch's pig, but a later turn of events places the witch, by her own account, in Mirka's debt, and so to even the ledger the witch tells the would-be dragonslayer how she can acquire that most necessary of dragonslaying accoutrements.

Such a broad outline gives little indication of the story's flavor, which is spiced with details as specific to the Hirschbergs' culture as the hero's journey is universal — frequently the indicator of a compelling tale. We see Mirka's family observe the Sabbath customs, are given through both dialogue and omniscient illustrations some observations of Orthodox Jewish life, and encounter Yiddish expressions on nearly every page. The world of trolls and talking pigs into which Mirka has stumbled, believed by her siblings at first to be merely another flight of fancy, troubles her 14-year-old sister Gittel; calling attention to herself by mouthing off to boys and charging through the woods, let alone musing about battling monsters, is no way for Mirka to be considered a good match and could reflect poorly on her siblings as well. Hardly the evil-stepmother stereotype, Fruma in some ways seems to appreciate Mirka's mental if not physical wanderlust the most, and challenges her thinking constructively even as she commits to educating Mirka in traditional feminine disciplines.

The bullies Yiztchok and Manis from Pgs. 6-7 of Hereville © 2010 Barry Deutsch.

Exactly where or even when Hereville exists is unclear. The Hirschberg home does have electric appliances, and there are a few brief, jarring references to popular entertainment at odds with Mirka's daily life — but those come from a troll, who may well exist outside time like the Genie in Disney's Aladdin. What's stranger, given the indications of relative modernity, is just how isolated Hereville seems to be, as only Mirka's stepsister Rochel even recognizes a pig from her time living amongst goyim (non-Jews).

Another minor quibble is that the Yiddish words are explained at the bottom of every page, no matter where on the page they appear, which can interrupt the flow of the story; I'd have preferred small captions within the appropriate panel. Further, although I suspect (indeed, I hope, as it would indicate a wide audience) that many readers will come to Hereville with no knowledge of Yiddish at all, some of Deutsch's choices of transliteration are puzzling. Yiddish — based on German with dollops of Hebrew and other languages — is mostly a spoken tongue in America, granted, and has few standardized English spellings even among the loanwords that have insinuated themselves into everyday parlance (schmuck, chutzpah, tush), but surely challah has to be a more recognizable or just a more appropriate choice for pronunciation than khale for the bread traditionally eaten on Shabbat, braided much like Mirka's hair.

Deutsch's art falls prey to a pitfall with which I'm familiar from my own drawing and which has bedeviled even the most practiced creators, namely that in adopting an admirably spare style of cartooning he inevitably ends up with some awkward renderings when the line isn't just right. I like the clean, simple look overall, however, far more than the occasionally more detailed close-ups, and his figure work is often outstanding in deceptively complex ways. He generally keeps to a standard grid of panels, making the well-timed, well-executed departures all the more effective; a page of Mirka justifying her actions to herself and the reader late in the story is particularly nice. The muted palette of Jack Richmond's colors and its flat application, eschewing garish airbrush-style techniques, are absolutely perfect.

Mirka's discovery of the witch's house and discussion thereof amongst
the Hirschberg kids from Pgs. 12 & Pg. 15 of
Hereville © 2010 Barry Deutsch.

I can't possibly tell you how Hereville reads to someone who isn't of at least partial Jewish heritage, having grown up in a secular environment but gone to Hebrew School and had grandparents who spoke some Yiddish. But I would guess that if you're even familiar with the Amish or Mennonites, let alone Chassidim — or, heck, if you know Fiddler on the Roof — then it won't come across as unrelatably foreign. Even with the criticisms above, and the caveat that the ending was quite abrupt, I appreciated Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword enough to revisit it in short order and explore its origins online. The website is a great way to find out if it's for you, although if you enjoy the generous preview I recommend you buy the graphic novel rather than read the webcomic, which was greatly expanded and redrawn for Amulet's hardcover publication.

"Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl," indeed. As Mirka's Poppa might say, What's not to like?

If you purchase the hardcover of Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword from Amazon by clicking through here, Blam's Blog may receive a small commission on the sale, including anything else placed in your cart during the session — [updated] like the softcover edition or the sequel Hereville: How Mirka Met a Meteorite in hardcover or Kindle editions.


Teebore said...

Hmm, I will definitely check this out. I have a soft spot for spunky female leads and I'm old-fashioned enough to be a sucker for web comics that make the transition to that ancient "print" format. Try it online, like it and buy it in book form. It's the best of both worlds!

Plus, I love me some Yiddish.

Arben said...

I really liked how empowering this was while still presenting Mirka as a realistic kid rather than an always-right superhero. Not that superheroes are no fun! But her sister and stepmother had valid points of view, too, as you said. I might've been a little less enamored of the artwork than you, and right now the girls are not of age to read this, but after checking it out in the store it will definitely end up in our library eventually. Maybe I should get a copy for the synagogue now and just borrow it back in a few years. : )

El Qué said...

Ooh, I should check this out. I've really been manquing Showcase. And I've been trying not to go so crazy with ordering stuff online, but if you vouch for it I think I can make an exception.

Naomi Ruth said...

Oooh... This sounds quite interesting, indeed. Plus, I've been impressed with some of the books Amulet puts out. Anywhoodles... Thanks for giving me the link to this. :)