Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Book Review: The Unanointed

Title: The Unanointed

Author: Laurene Chinn

Date: 1958

Publisher: Crown

ISBN: none

Length: 314 pages

Quote: “Don’t underrate the boy who goes to David. David has need of a kinsman with your gifts of common sense and reliability.”

Such a kinsman was Joab, the army commander of King David of ancient Israel.

As Chinn mentions in the foreword, the historical books in the Bible tell us a lot about Joab’s public life, but little about his private life. This novel attempts to fill in the gaps. What history has survived three thousand years is incomplete and confused, but mostly Chinn has tried to stick to the facts available—apart from deliberately changing a few names and stories for purely literary reasons. The Bible mentions that three of David’s eight official wives had been married to other men. Priests had to be their wives' first husbands; one of the legal precedents David set was that kings could not only marry widows and divorcees but, if the woman were not divorcees, contrive to make them widows. Chinn changes another wife's name and gives her a fictional romance with Joab, to heighten the dramatic tension inherent in a close relationship between the two most powerful men in their country.

Reba (Chinn's name for the character whose real name was recorded as Ahinoam) was "in love" with Joab when they were all a gang of young outlaws wandering around the border country. They couldn't afford a wedding, but you know how delinquent youth are. Then, when David became king, Reba's influential relatives wanted her to be a king's bride. The Bible tells us nothing about the real Ahinoam but it does tell us that the real David did not set a great value on monogamy, and that when they grew up Ahinoam's son raped one of David's other children, the daughter of Maacah. Chinn postulates that this act might have seemed less vile to a young man who was hostile and sullen only to a normal degree if that young man knew that he was not really David's son, and thus no relation to David's and Maacah's daughter at all. In such a case the attraction might even have been mutual and the sex act consensual--in the Bible, Tamar did go to attend Amnon when he claimed to be ill. In The Unanointed, Joab and Reba are the parents of Amnon, and they remain loyal to David even after David has had Amnon executed for his crime.

Ancient Hebrew had specific words not only for “uncle,” “nephew,” “brother-in-law,” and other family members, but also distinguished between maternal and paternal relatives of various degrees. (Your mother’s brother was considered to be a whole different type of relative than  your father’s brother, and so on.) Nevertheless ancient Hebrews used the words for “brother” and “sister” to address or refer to anyone they loved--including their mates and children. Chinn doesn’t try to adapt this linguistic quirk into English but, instead, adapts the confusion by using “cousin” to mean any relative; David is in fact Joab’s uncle, but they address each other as “cousin.”

Other deliberate changes make this novel an unreliable illumination of history. “A few familiar figures” (from the Bible record) “were omitted and their essential acts ascribed to others in this story,” and “The building program ascribed to David was in part the work of Solomon.” Some of the changes are trivial; others could be said to falsify the story. The Bible historians tell us that David planned the building program, and wanted to carry it out, but interpreted things—possibly real-world concerns about time and money and so forth, possibly dreams or solemn rituals of divination—as indications that  God wanted the building to be done by a Man of Peace. If I, personally, attempted to write a novel about David of Israel that saw him through middle age, I’d work with the documented fact that, although all of his killings except the arranged death of Uriah were justifiable under the law, David himself felt stained and spiritually degraded by having taken human lives; he wanted one of his sons, who never had to go to war, to be remembered as the “Sun-King” of Israel’s brightest, most prosperous period. I find this one of the more interesting data about David. Chinn chooses, for her own reasons, to ignore it. For all I know she may have done this in order to retell a true story about some other person, in some way not disclosed to the public; all I can say is that she’s left with a weaker story.

The Unanointed may have been marketed primarily to Christians, but its characters were not Christians and Chinn doesn't try to Christianize them. They are ancient Palestinian Semites. Since modern terms based on the old name “Semites” are being bandied about again, I reiterate, and The Unanointed illuminates, that it means any of the people we now usually call “Middle Eastern.” They all evolved from the same ancestors. Religious Jews who try to follow the teachings of Moses lived, then as now, in close relationships with agnostics, atheists, and Pagans. The cultural atmosphere was more like Bedouin Arab culture than like modern American or European Jewish culture. David, whose name may even have been a nickname meaning “The Beloved,” was “beloved” of the Bible historians partly because he was sincerely religious (though not always willing to live by his beliefs). Many of the people around him were not. The story of David and his family is not, therefore, a Christian story, nor could it be.

It’s not a secular story, either. It's a story based loosely on the history of a religious man—but modern religious language is inherently confusing. At this period of history the term “Jew” did not exist even in its original meaning of "member of the tribe of Judah as distinct from the other tribes of Israel"; the Talmud had not been written, nor had most of the events that shaped Jewish culture and religion occurred. David’s spirituality, a vital part of his story, is hardly even Jewish in the modern sense. It’s closer to being Jewish than to being anything else, but even though David belonged to the tribe of Judah, we have to wonder how much he would recognize in modern Judaism.

Here, in any case, is an historical novel that explores the meaning of loyalty. Chinn put more than fifteen years of research into it; when she chose to misrepresent facts, she knew which facts she was misrepresenting and why. The result is not history. How good it is as a serious psychological novel about men’s friendship, you’d do better to ask a male reviewer.

As fiction, it’s readable, tasteful, the sort of thing adults didn’t mind seeing teenagers reading in 1958. I think perhaps some of those adults would have done better to worry more about deliberate distortions of historical facts than to worry about erotic scenes or bad language, but in view of the number of novels that wallow in vulgarity as well as falsehood I suppose The Unanointed rates better than many historical novels. I, having read it once, feel no interest in reading it twice, but others may find it more emotionally engaging than I do.

Laurene Chinn has not had any use for a dollar in a long time. This web site has to charge $5 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment, so if you're not buying other books here you can get this one cheaper directly from Amazon. If you are buying other books here, however, you pay only the one $5 shipping fee for as many as I can fit into a package; since that would include three other books of the same size you might get a better deal by buying The Unanointed here after all.