On the Many Holy Wizards of The Angel of Losses by Stephanie FeldmanThe Angel of Losses, a young woman named Marjorie remembers an evening from her childhood. She and her sister Holly spent many evenings like that one, listening to their grandfather Eli conjure fairy tales about a hero named the White Magician. Usually, the magician takes on the usual bedtime story tasks: saving hapless villagers with a benevolent spell, cleverly defeating an evil king. But this story is different.
He’s called upon to identify a child-murderer. The White Magician raises the child’s ghost, so it can lead people to the killer. The ghost sets out in one direction, and the White Magician in the other, not waiting for the criminal to be found, or to return the soul to rest. The White Magician himself also has an ending that's not an ending— he disappears into the night, and what becomes of him, no one knows. When Marjorie presses Eli for an answer, he becomes angry. They never speak of the story again. The fate of the White Magician—and the reason for Eli’s anger—haunts Marjorie.
Years later, she becomes a scholar of literature, studying the figure of the Wandering Jew, a character that reminds her of her grandfather’s hero. By then, Eli's dead and Holly has married and converted to a strict denomination of Judaism; the two sisters barely speak. But that all changes when Marjorie discovers one of Eli’s notebooks and its story of another mysterious wizard: the White Rebbe.
The story of the White Rebbe and his battle against the Angel of Losses is invented, but it’s born from my research into legend and mysticism and history. Literature and folktales retell the same stories over and over again, the same archetypes and narrative arcs, and I found myself tracing a particular tale—a holy man attempts to summon the end of the world and the arrival of paradise, and is punished for his hubris— across centuries and continents.
I liked that story—especially the heroes, or anti-heroes, whose devotion to God blurs into blasphemy—but more than that, I liked teasing out the differences among the many versions. Why did one storyteller or community give the hero followers, while others had him travel alone? Why did some punish him with madness, and others with transformation into a black dog? Why one fate and not another?
This question dogged me throughout my research and writing, and I was never able to answer it. But I gave my quest—or a version of it—to Marjorie, so that she could. Marjorie compares the White Magician, the fairy-tale hero from her childhood; the White Rebbe, the wizard from Eli’s recently discovered notebook; and the Berukhim Rebbe, her brother-in-law’s guru. On top of that, she has all of the travelers and magical holy men that come up in the books she’s scouring for answers.
She hopes that learning about one of these figures will teach her about the others. Ultimately, however, her search takes on a greater meaning. She finds that each legend has much to tell her about the people who invented and cherished (or were haunted by) them.
Marjorie’s relationship to each of the figures she’s tracking teaches her about herself too. Just as multiple “magicians” coincide, so do multiple selves. She’s the woman who unlocks the White Rebbe’s secrets and the Berukhim Rebbe’s fate, and in so doing comes to see her grandfather, sister, and brother-in-law in a vastly different light. But she also remains the girl who sat by Eli’s side in a pink suburban bedroom, rapt at the wonder of a generous, powerful man who arrived just when things seemed most hopeless—and later fell asleep, knowing that Eli was awake in the room next door, and that as long as she had him, she would never be alone.
Connect with Stephanie on her blog, Twitter or Facebook.
Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Ecco (July 29, 2014)
About The Angel of Losses by Stephanie Feldman: The Tiger’s Wife meets A History of Love in this inventive, lushly imagined debut novel that explores the intersections of family secrets, Jewish myths, the legacy of war and history, and the bonds between sisters.
When Eli Burke dies, he leaves behind a mysterious notebook full of stories about a magical figure named The White Rebbe, a miracle worker in league with the enigmatic Angel of Losses, protector of things gone astray, and guardian of the lost letter of the alphabet, which completes the secret name of God.
When his granddaughter, Marjorie, discovers Eli’s notebook, everything she thought she knew about her grandfather—and her family—comes undone. To find the truth about Eli’s origins and unlock the secrets he kept, she embarks on an odyssey that takes her deep into the past, from 18th century Europe to Nazi-occupied Lithuania, and back to the present, to New York City and her estranged sister Holly, whom she must save from the consequences of Eli’s past.
Interweaving history, theology, and both real and imagined Jewish folktales, The Angel of Losses is a family story of what lasts, and of what we can—and cannot—escape.