Wednesday, March 27th, 2013...2:02 pm

Noah’s wife, with no name

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Sinners and the Sea: The Untold Story of Noah’s Wife, by Rebecca Kanner, Howard Books, 320 pages, $24.99

Reviewed by NEAL GENDLER

About Noah, the Torah says he was a righteous man in his time and little else. About Mrs. Noah, the Torah says nothing.

So Rebecca Kanner has created an autobiography of Noah’s wife, and an imaginative one it is. Kanner, an award-winning, Twin Cities-based writer, creates a girl born with a prominent birthmark over her left eye. As she grows, she covers it with a kerchief, but the villagers know of the mark, thinking it denotes a demon.

Her mother dies in a year, and her father gives her no name “for fear it would be too easy then for people to talk and spread lies.” When he no longer can protect her from a mob out to rid themselves of her and her alleged curse, he accepts a trader’s offer: half his olive harvest for a marriage to Noah.

Author to speak April 2 and 11

Noah is hundreds of years old, short, withered, dirty and obsessed with having a son. She’s sweet and innocent; but past normal marriage age and threatened, she can’t afford to be fussy. His tent is days away, outside Sorum, a city of outcasts, their foreheads marked with X. They live in vile perversion, disease and constant killing. Giving her a list of tasks, he’s neither pleasant nor tender, and converses little with her. But he talks a lot to God and lectures townspeople to reform.

Sinners-cover

Still, she is safe and eventually is blessed with sons Shem, Japheth and Ham — a disparate, quarrelsome handful who must be kept from Sorum’s evil. She befriends a large, disfigured and murderous Sorum brothel owner who wants one of the sons for her mentally slow, virginal daughter, Herai.

The wife makes friends with Herai, treating her almost as her own child, to Noah’s disapproval.

Kanner provides occasional insight into the couple’s relationship, or at least the wife’s desperation. For example: “Though I did not always like my husband — in fact, I rarely liked him — I could not help but love him. He had taken a marked woman for a wife and given her a home and three sons.”

But that wife had little influence. “Neither Ham [her favorite] nor I held sway over Noah. But Ham at least would one day have his own family, and then he would make decrees instead of following them. It seems I never would.”

Shem sneaks into town, eventually taking to wife a local girl, Ona. Later, Japheth will be required to marry Herai, and Ham will get Zilpha, a precocious 7-year-old, self-proclaimed prophetess who arrives on an elephant with Noah’s kinsman Manosh. Manosh supplies the huge amounts of lumber for the ark, expecting to be taken aboard. But Noah insists that God wants only him and his immediate family to survive — and at various points, would-be passengers are repelled or put overboard.

Sinners and the Sea, rather spare in style, is easy reading, but not for the squeamish. Sorum is an awful place, and the tossing ark is miserable, with its animal noises, the smell of their droppings, and the family’s personal odors and arguments. This is not the voyage of our children’s skimpy Bible books. It is filled with anger, injury and despair.

The story is told by the wife, the only really virtuous and clearly developed character. The terrible voyage damages her body but builds her character; as Noah’s strength ebbs, hers grows. She says: “I will not go back to being the obedient wife I was on land.” But she fears dying nameless.

After reading of this fear several times, it dawned on me to wonder: Why she didn’t just give herself a name? Of course, that would have fit neither the plot nor the ending.

Near the end, she realizes that her curse, the mark that “brought me shame, humiliation [and] hatred,” was a blessing. About to fling her kerchief away, she says: “The mark has saved me.”

***

Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis writer and editor.

Author Rebecca Kanner will speak about her new book, Sinners and the Sea, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 2 at Magers and Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis; and 7 p.m. Thursday, April 11 at SubText, 165 Western Ave. N., St. Paul.

(American Jewish World, 3.29.13)

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