catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 21 :: 2003.11.07 — 2003.11.20


Spelling bees, kleptomania, Hare Krishna, and listening for the words of God

In Myla Goldberg's novel, Bee Season, every member of the Naumann family is desperately seeking God. Saul, the father, after years of drug experimentation and debauchery in college, seems content in his status as a house husband who spends hours in his study and in the synagogue reading and praying. He is fascinated by Kabbalism, the Jewish psuedo-legitimate study of the words of the Bible as repository of meanings deeper than the surface through the letters and numbers themselves. Saul seeks the voice of God in the letters of the words of God.

The mother, Miriam, seems to be a successful lawyer and a loving, if distant, caregiver to her husband and children. In truth though, she suffers from an obsessive perfectionism that eventually begins to turn into a strange sort of kleptomania. In addition to enjoying the thrill of shoplifting things she does not need, Miriam is trying to create an artistic image of perfection by securing the right things in relation to each other. Miriam seeks the voice of God in the things of the world.

The oldest child, Aaron had always believed that devotion to his father and to Judaism would bring him closer to God. He craves a return of the experience he had as a youngster in a airplane, when he thought he beheld God's face in the clouds. When his relationship with his father suffers a vicious blow, Aaron decides that maybe religion is like grocery shopping. You need to compare labels. He is reading a book on eastern religions in a park when he is approached by a devotee of the Krishna faith. Soon Aaron is inventing stories so that his parents won't know he is going to the temple of Krishna Consciousness and chanting his weekends away. Aaron seeks the voice of God in the religions of the world.

But the book is mostly about the youngest daughter, Eliza. Since she was turned down for the gifted and talented program in early elementary, Eliza has been unremarkable. Her teachers and parents are shocked when Eliza wins her class spelling bee, then goes on to win the school's spelling bee. Her parents and brother take notice of her, she gets to sit at the lunch table with the smart kids, and her life begins to have purpose. At the Philadelphia city contest, Eliza begins to realize that sometimes the words she is spelling seem to be speaking to her. When Saul finds this out, after she has won the city contest, he begins studying with her for the national meet. He suspects his daughter may have great potential for Kabbalism. He slowly begins training her in its techniques. Soon, Eliza is seeking God's voice in her spelling words. As Saul's attention shifts away from his wife and son and toward his daughter, the family begins to unravel.

This is a great novel, with fascinating characters, interesting situations, and an intriguing plot. I found the characters sympathetic from the start and the writing beautiful and compelling. But it is the way the story tackles belief that makes it interesting.

Bee Season starts with the premise that all people seek God. It shows that quest as legitimate, important, and almost involuntarily compelling. In a world of literature that sometimes seems to dwell upon the pointlessness of modern life to a fault, there is some hope in the way these people life their lives.

The book also shows how sin distorts our seeking. Each in their own way, the Naumann family members seek the wrong thing. In the end, it is Eliza who provides hope for the family. I think. To be honest, I have reread the ending several times and I cannot figure out if Eliza is sacrificing for her family or turning her back on them. And the book does leave me with that feeling, common to the ends of some books, of wishing for an epilogue. I feel confident that Eliza will be okay in the end, but I don't know if her search for God will survive. I don't know if her family will survive their attempts to find God. A friend of mine at church says that what the ending is really getting at is that you need to stop searching for God and let him come find you. This seems like a nice idea, but I am not sure the text supports it.

You need to read this book. You need to think about it and listen for what God is saying in it.

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