Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword
Or, as the subtitle has it, “Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl”. The important piece there is the last, because what makes this graphic novel by Barry Deutsch so remarkable is its combination of folkloric adventure with the authentic, respectful portrayal of that particular culture.
Mirka chafes against the knitting and other homecrafts in which her stepmother Fruma aims to train her. She’s an agressive, argumentative back-talker, too smart for her own good and her place in a traditional community that values fitting in. Mirka doesn’t realize just how much Fruma is teaching her by challenging her with logical and religious debates, and her many sisters are much better at accepting their eventual fate as wives.
Mirka takes a grape from a witch’s vine growing on the fence of a wonderful building, previously unseen, which sets into motion a battle between her and a very smart pig, before she sets out on a quest for a sword with which to slay dragons. Along the way, we also see her family celebrate an orthodox Shabbos.
The characters in Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword are simple, dot eyes and line noses, but always in motion, always expressing something with their arms and faces. Deutsch’s work is a little stiff when it comes to the most active sequences — when one person chases another early on, they look like they’re speed-walking instead of running after each other — but the real meat of the story is in moments, often conversational.
The story-telling is simple and straightforward, so as not to get in the way of the reader taking in the details of Mirka’s life and dreams. (Although at various important moments, the panel grid changes to highlight the mood or emphasize particular visuals.) The challenge comes in the language, with Yiddish words used frequently and translated at the bottom of the page. It adds to the fable-like feeling, with words unfamiliar to many readers providing an exotic overlay.
I’m still a bit uncomfortable with aspects of Mirka’s life — the way the kids are separated boys and girls at school, the importance of the family reputation so the girls’ parents can find them a good husband — but in personality, she’s full of imagination and she’s fearless. She stands up to bullies, even if she has to hide her actions from those who think it’s not suitable for a girl to do. I hope those qualities aren’t drummed out of her as she grows older. That we see women with strong minds who value intelligence (of all kinds) gives hope. The suggestion that imagination makes even the most restrictive life and mundane tasks more pleasurable is a smart one, even if the ending is abrupt.
Although I have pieces and parts I quibble about with the book, it’s so fresh and unusual a subject, told with such affection, and providing such an unusual perspective on the world, that I made it one of my best of last year. The first 15 pages are available to read at the book’s website.