I started reading HUSH at about 4:00 this afternoon. I finished reading it at about 2:00 this morning. During that time I had to tear myself away to pick up and drop off kids, make dinner, and help with homework, otherwise I would have finished sooner. HUSH is that compelling of a read.
The story took me to a place and amongst a people that I didn't know existed, a branch of extremely orthodox Jews that live in New York. Although the sect in this book is fictional, it's similar to major Chassidic branches in now living in New York. Their religious practices and culture are still very close to what they were one-hundred to two-hundred years ago, including hats and beards for the men, married women required to keep their hair covered, and marriages arranged by a matchmaker.
The book centers around Gittel, whose narration moves back and forth between her as a nine-year-old girl and then as a teenager and young bride. Gittel witnesses the sexual assault of her best friend, Devory at age nine. In a culture of arranged marriages where sex isn't spoken of at all until weeks before a wedding, Gittel doesn't fully understand what happened to her friend. When she tries to tell the adults around her, she is hushed up and told to forget what she saw. The view of the sect as a whole is that sexual abuse is a goyim, or gentile problem and that those kind of things didn't happen in their community. For Gittel to even witness such an event put her in the position to possibly be "unmarriageable," the worst thing for a girl in that culture to be. Eventually, Devory commits suicide as a result of the sexual abuse she has suffered. In the chapters where Gittel is a young woman she is still consumed by guilt because she couldn't help her friend.
The voice of HUSH is unique. As the story alternated between Gittel as a child and Gittel as young woman, I felt I was reading a middle grade book, a young adult book, and sometimes even a novel written for an adult. Gittel's innocence shown through the whole book, and I could see that in many ways she was stuck back as the nine-year-old child, helpless to save her friend.
As much as HUSH compelled me to keep reading, at times I found it difficult to get through. Besides the myriad of emotions this story brought up, I struggled with many of the Yiddish and Hebrew words and phrases that were spread throughout. The book includes a glossary at the back, but I was so focused on the story that I didn't take the time to look them up as I read. Someone who is more familiar with the culture probably wouldn't have the same problems that I did.
Although critical of the Chassidic sect's handling of abuse, HUSH portrays the culture as warm and caring within itself. Gittel's family relationships are loving, and a huge sense of community and service are built into their everyday lives. However, the Chassidic are shown as highly suspicious and prejudiced towards anyone who is not part of their sect.
This is a hard one. I actually went back and forth about whether I should review this book at all, but it came down to whether I should be like the parents in the book who preferred to pretend that these things don't really exist, or if I should be brave enough to talk about them.
It goes without saying that there is sexual content in this book. The descriptions are written simply and not graphically, and told through the eyes of innocence. The scene where Gittel discovers Devory's body is disturbing.
The author uses the pseudonym, Eishes Chayil, meaning woman of valor, and in the book, Gittel's husband tells her she is a woman of valor because she is protecting the children. I thought about this a lot as I read the book. As a mom, I can't afford to pretend that horrible things don't exist. In order to protect my children and the children I associate with, I must actively combat horrible things, by talking about them openly with my kids. I believe a true, Eishes Chayil, or woman of valor speaks up for children and those who can't speak up for themselves.
I would recommend this book for older teens, 14 and up, because there are some disturbing scenes and situations. Use your discretion on the age, but if/when you chose to let your child read this book, READ IT WITH THEM. This is a good opportunity to talk to your teenager about sexual abuse and let them know that they can come to you if they are ever in a situation that makes them uncomfortable. You have to have this talk over and over again, and this is a book that will help you open up that discussion.
This book is not just for the Chassidic people. Sexual abuse happens to people of all religions, races, cultures, and families. I came from a predominantly Mormon community and I saw the same problem with shame and secrecy happen there. Sexual assault is so horrible a crime, especially when it is perpetrated against children, that it's tempting to pretend that it doesn't exist, but that won't make it go away.
I think the ultimate message of HUSH is that sexual abuse is a crime that thrives on secrecy. Pretending it doesn't exist won't make it go away. Although it is written as fiction, the author says she is telling her own story and the stories of others who were victims of, and silent witnesses of abuse.
HUSH was compelling, interesting, and beautifully written. It was at times difficult, but it is definitely a worthwhile book to read.
* Disclaimer* HUSH was given to me by my editor at Walker Books For Young Readers, so the author and I have the same publisher.
As parents and teens, what other books have you found that open up a discussion on hard, but important issues?