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Book: The Handmaid and the Carpenter

December 24, 2008

That was a disappointment.

Somehow we ended up with this book — I think it was given to us in a big bag of books. I thought since it’s so seasonal (being the tale of Mary and Joseph), and short, I might as well give it a try.

Read in two short stretches, this was not as good as I’d hoped. It reminded me of The Red Tent, another biblical-times story that could have been really great but fell short.

I persevered because I have always loved the Christmas story. My grandma was a Baptist and so we always got lovely, gentle versions of Christian stories (I had a massive children’s Bible that I read from cover to cover and adored), and especially Christmas stories full of Jesus and angels. I love Nativity scenes and the ritual of hearing the story of the angel announcing the birth to the shepherds, and the three wise men bringing gifts… it is such a peaceful story full of love and hope.

This book was the story of Mary and Joseph. How they met, fell in love, and how Mary’s virgin pregnancy and birth affected their relationship. This book was short and a very fast read, and only went surface-deep. I thought that was a shame, because I’ve always wondered what it must have been like for Joseph.

In this version, Mary and Joseph meet when they are very young (although of betrothal age in those days) — about 13 and 16. They are quickly betrothed. Joseph is a very traditional, religious young man, and Mary is a curious, somewhat untraditional young woman. They enjoy what is different in each other and are very much in love, and eagerly awaiting their wedding day.

Then, one day Mary (who is feeling truculent about her impending marriage and unwilling to give up her girlhood and freedoms) is threatened by a Roman soldier as she plays in a river. It goes unsaid that she could have possibly been raped (but, in this story, wasn’t). Immediately after her escape, the angel comes to her and tells her that she is the be the mother of the Christ child. She is filled with wonder and joy, and goes home to tell her mother (who, according to Christian history, was also visited by an angel to tell of her unusual child — Mary was born without original sin). Her mother immediately believes her, and her father supports her.

Joseph has a harder time, naturally. By rights he is no longer obligated to marry her, as she is now an unwed mother. However, his love for Mary runs deep and he agrees to marry her anyway (after another angel visits him to encourage him to marry her and raise the child).

So. They get married, and are happy, although Joseph feels the sting of going against tradition and also harbors untrusting thoughts about Mary.

And so it goes. They go to Bethlehem for the census, there’s no room at the inn, Mary gives birth in the stable, etc. My favorite part of this book was the short section where the shepherds come to pay homage to the baby, and when the wise men come to give gifts, and warn of Herod’s rage.

So why didn’t I like it? Well, my first complaint is the style in which it was written. I hate it when modern writers use Jane Austen-era grammar and construct to indicate ‘ancient peoples’. As in, overly cumbersome or simplistic language. Joseph says, “I grow hungry. Come, we will eat near the noon hour.” Or Mary, “Oh husband, have you still question in your heart? Can you not believe me, that the angel I tell of is truth?”

Sigh. WhatEVER. I mean, if you’re going to use funky old-fashioned clunky sentence structure, why not just translate directly from Aramaic? This old-fashioned English fools me not, methinks. It just bothers me. I would have liked it much better if they used modern English — the device of using the old-fashioned (or whatever it is) structure only serves to create a distance from the characters. I’m stuck on the language, not feeling sympathetic to their plight.

Also, although I know it’s supposed to be true to the times, Joseph comes across as something of a jerk. His wife is 12 days away from giving birth, and he makes her ride a donkey for over a week to get to Bethlehem, instead of letting her stay with her mother. He didn’t trust her to stay behind. I get it, but COME ON, dude. She’s about to give birth! He sort of regrets this action later, admitting to himself that maybe it was a little hard on Mary to have to travel by donkey over the desert with almost no food or water for over a week, then give birth by herself in a stable, then travel THE NEXT DAY to Jerusalem for the circumcision, then ride home with a nursing new baby back across the desert home again.

You think?

There are other instances of Joseph being a jerk under the guise of traditionalism. I get it, but he’s still being an ass.

Over all, I felt incredible distance from all the characters and did not get pulled in at all. They felt very wooden and the story was too short, besides (not that I wanted any more of this clunky version).

However, it did make me want to find my old children’s bible and re-read the part about Jesus’ birth, just for old times sake.

Merry Christmas Eve, everyone. May you be surrounded by people and stories that you love.

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