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Queen Esther of the Potboilers

I have it on good authority that I’m a snob. The epithet is fair enough: I have little patience with popular literature, even though popular literature, by dint of its popularity, is arguably the most effective tool a writer can use to file a claim about the world, disseminate a vision, or belt out a yawp that might actually get heard by someone. I do occasionally pick up books aimed at the “mass audience”—I just need a good reason to do so.

A few years ago, one of my own books was attacked in a rambling pamphlet distributed by a Christian parents’ group protesting the Catholic university in Minnesota where I was then teaching. The group found it odd that a man who had once participated in satanic rituals, albeit to research a book about fringe religions, would have wound up as a professor at such a school. Here, too, there was a case to be made: it was a little strange.

But I wasn’t the only one in the crosshairs. A couple years before that, the same group attempted to derail the school’s choice of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as a “common text” for incoming freshmen. By chance, this effort coincided with “Banned Books Week,” a nationwide movement that the school library was taking enthusiastic part in—and, as it happened, Atwood’s novel was listed among the works most frequently removed from high school curriculums on religious grounds.

I recalled these incidents recently, when I heard that a book aimed squarely at a popular audience—Sinners and the Sea, a Great Flood yarn told from the perspective of Noah’s wife—had been removed from the shelves of a Christian bookstore in the Twin Cities. The novel was the debut effort of Rebecca Kanner, another Minnesotan, and while refusing to sell a book is not, strictly speaking, a “banning,” the boycott struck me as peculiar. Sinners and the Sea was published by Howard Books, the Christian wing of Simon & Schuster, which meant the novel was being shunned by elements within its target readership.

That was enough for me. I bought and read Sinners and the Sea to see what the Christian bookstore owner found so objectionable, and to attempt to home in on just what, in these infidel days, rises to the occasion of censorship. I found the book to be perfectly enjoyable precisely because it did not seem particularly Christian, which might have been the problem all along. What stays with me still is Kanner’s account of the mid-voyage attack of the titans—a scene that lives in my imagination far more vividly than the lumbering digital boulder beasts of Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 film Noah, a Bible-as-Russell-Crowe-vehicle that appeared not long after Kanner’s novel. Score one for the written word.

And now Kanner has published Esther, a retelling of the Old Testament’s Cinderella fable of the origin of Purim, a kind of Jewish Halloween. The short version, known to even the most casual readers of the Hebrew Bible, is this: a Jewish orphan girl, Hadassah—she takes the name Esther, possibly to hide her faith—gets abducted along with many Persian virgins into King Xerxes’s harem. She becomes queen after a months-long beauty contest, and once enthroned, she manages to avert a holocaust against her people. To this day, every spring, Jewish children dress up as the Book of Esther’s heroes and villains to commemorate the chosen people’s other brush with annihilation.

Queen Gambits

It’s hard work being snobby. You’re forever justifying your lack of interest in popular books to friends, and the logic you rely on is itself exhaustingly snotty. (I’m thinking in particular here of Harold Bloom’s claim that life is too short for anything shy of a masterpiece.) I note this because, even though I enjoyed Kanner’s first book, I might not have read Esther without another good reason.

My snob-self refuses full immersion in the Esther canon for the same reason I wouldn’t wrap my lips around my car’s tailpipe to research an article about the effects of CO2 emissions on public health.

What does some two-thousand-year-old Jewish fairy tale have to do with me? That would be my snob-self talking, wanting the books to which I dedicate fractions of my intellectual life to matter in immediate and unmistakable ways. Could a Jewish teenager make good use of an excursion into the Old Testament’s version of The Bachelor? Sure. Christians, too—especially if they’re looking to misinterpret the story, with its theme of obedience, as another prooftext in the biblical literature of marital “headship” (i.e., as fodder for the fundamentalists’ tireless bid to con Christian wives into obeying Christian husbands). But me? Pfff. I’ve got better things to do. For example, I went to Africa to research a book.

More specifically, I went to Swaziland, where, it turns out, there is an annual celebration in which tens of thousands of virgins—the preferred term is “maidens”—gather to parade before the country’s absolute monarch, in the hope that one of them will be chosen to become the next of the king’s many wives. So much for the past being past. Not long ago, in August 2015, there was a terrible accident on Swaziland’s Malagwane highway which was once listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most dangerous road in the world. A truck carrying maidens to that celebration crashed. Sixty-five girls died.

Once again that was enough, and this time the snob in me was forced to admit that it’s a mistake to try to anticipate the ways in which a book, any book, might bear on your experience. I ordered Kanner’s Esther.

The Esther Culture Wars

You’d be hard pressed to find a deeper or weirder rabbit hole to fall down than books and movies based on the Book of Esther.

First you’ve got criticism, both Jewish and Christian, that attempts to mine the Bible’s weirdest chapter—God goes unmentioned throughout—for lessons that apply to the modern world. Recent works in this category include The Dawn: Political Teachings of the Book of Esther (1995), by Herzl Institute president Yoram Hazony; Esther: A Woman of Strength and Dignity (1997), by celebrity evangelical pastor Charles Swindoll; The Esther Effect (2001), by “communication expert” and author of forty-six books Dianna Booher; Queen Esther’s Reflection: A Portrait of Grace, Courage, and Excellence (2007), by “pro-Israel advocate” Ann Platz; The Queen You Thought You Knew (2011), by Rabbi David Fohrman; and Esther: It’s Tough Being a Woman (2008), by Living Proof Ministries founder Beth Moore, who subsequently turned her Esther work into a nine-week televangelist course about how God is “present” in the world even when there is no “obvious miracle.” The “leader kit” for the course, which promises “treasures to aid us in our hurried, harried, and pressured lives,” sells for $179.99.

Then there are the novels: Esther: The Star and the Sceptre (1980), by Gini Andrews; Esther: A Story of Courage (2003), by Trudy Morgan-Cole; The Gilded Chamber (2004), by Rebecca Kohn; A Reluctant Queen (2011), by Joan Wolf; Game of Queens (2015), by India Edghill; and a trifecta of Esther books from preacher and CEO Tommy Tenney: Hadassah: The Girl Who Became Queen Esther (2005, juvenile fiction); The Hadassah Covenant (2006, a thriller in which a modern Hadassah is the wife of the Israeli prime minister); and Hadassah: One Night with the King (2004).

Christian Esthers toe the line: theirs is a story in defense of patriarchy—women can become powerful only by accepting inferiority and satisfying male carnality.

It was the last of these that served as the basis for the most recent film adaptation of the Book of Esther, though it should be noted that One Night with the King (2006) is an adaptation of an adaptation, a film based on a book, itself based on another book. Other films include Esther (1999) and Esther and the King (1960). Also of note is Christopher Guest’s satiric For Your Consideration (2006), which follows the production of a fictional film, Home for Purim, while sending up the many ways in which actors and filmmakers wind up exploiting sacred history for glory and gain. For the record, the Esther movies feature unflattering appearances by Joan Collins, F. Murray Abraham, John Rhys-Davies, Peter O’Toole, John Noble, and Omar Sharif.

As a recent student of this cinematic subgenre, I cannot resist a quick aside: How should one describe the low production values that one, in an instant, associates with awkward Christian attempts to sneak in the back door of the mainstream? The cameras move, the actors wear makeup, the set is stuffed with glorious props—yet a tawdriness that screams “gentile” prevails. Perhaps this aesthetic—call it “makeshift epic”—stems from the likelihood that the set designers on these projects are the same people who headed up your high school’s prom committee. Or maybe it’s because the production contracts for these films stipulate that the period costumes be assembled with materials purchased from renowned evangelical megastore Hobby Lobby.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that I’ve done more than sample some of these books and films. My snob-self refuses full immersion in the Esther canon for the same reason I wouldn’t wrap my lips around my car’s tailpipe to research an article about the effects of CO2 emissions on public health. But I did take a look at enough of them to recognize that Kanner had willingly tossed herself into a gladiatorial arena in which Jews and Christians cage-fight over the basic meaning of the tale. And I sustained my exposure to the popcult Esther corpus long enough to state unequivocally that Kanner’s Esther is the best of the bunch. It’s the kind of book that used to be called a “romance,” which means you sort of know what you’re going to get in terms of plot, but along the way it introduces a few ideas—about men and history, women and agency—central to the heated debate over the Bible’s weirdo stepdaughter. This gives Kanner’s Esther a sneaky heft.

Unlike Esther herself, Kanner never hid her Jewish lineage and so, as I first approached her version of the Esther saga, I wondered if it might not amount to its own canny repurposing of Esther’s identity—casting Kanner as the lone Jewish entrant in a literary contest to win the favor of posterity. That turns out to be wrong. Other Jewish authors have taken up Esther as well, though it’s certainly the case that Christians outnumber Jews in what amounts to a curious little cold war.

It’s a war that has been raging for some time. A 2013 post on religion site Patheos notes core differences in the Hebrew and Greek versions of the Book of Esther, namely “God stuff” in the latter that is wholly missing in the former. This perhaps explains why some early Jewish authorities resisted Esther’s canonicity completely, and why later Protestant theologians such as John Calvin largely ignored the book while early church fathers like Pope Clement I and Aphrahat the Persian embraced it.

What seems to be the case is that no one has ever been quite sure what the Book of Esther is really about. It is sometimes described as a novella embedded in the Bible, which is a way of saying that it doesn’t resemble the rest of the Bible much at all.

No matter how it’s translated, the biblical Book of Esther is an undeniable slog. It’s been pointed out that the book is “clunky” and “overstays its welcome”—a harsh verdict on how God’s infallibility plays out for critical human sensibilities that, nonetheless, is hard to refute. The narrator of the Book of Esther is loose with dates and personal pronouns, and he’s the kind of storyteller who forgets to include germane facts and then injects the biblical equivalent of “Oh, and before I forgot to say that . . .” Sometimes the book’s phrasings so closely resemble the meandering diction of Republican politicians—“whatsoever she desired was given her to go with her out of the house of the women unto the king’s house,” in the King James Version—that it’s tempting to wonder whether those politicians are taking their cues from the divinely inspired chronicler of Esther, the Bible’s word bungler in chief.

The result is that the Book of Esther is a Rorschach-style inkblot of incidents onto which any old worldview might be projected; it’s a Harvard Outline of a story just waiting for enterprising authors to fill in the blanks. Even calling it the Book of Esther is a little strange, because while the plot orbits the character of Esther, it would be a leap to call her the protagonist. Pretty much all the subsequent versions have gone along with that first transgression—giving titular preference to a member of an ensemble cast otherwise dominated by men.

All the King’s Prerogatives

Swaziland, I found in my research, has a more than passing relationship to the Bible. Swazis descend from Bantu-speaking people who performed their own exodus out of Southern Egypt millennia ago, and a number of still existing Swazi traditions, such as paying a bride-price or marrying widows to their deceased husband’s brother, appear to derive from Genesis and Deuteronomy, respectively. Early Christian missionaries—a stalled gold rush in Swaziland’s northern mountains was matched by a more robust God rush in the nineteenth century, with at least twenty sects of Christianity establishing missions throughout the country—observed that local customs were “Semitic in origin.” A more recent scholarly analysis of Swazi “African Zionism,” a blend of ancient superstition and Pentecostal paroxysms of faith, noted that the movement’s modern leaders are “not at all different from the royal priests and prophets of the Old Testament.”

I can second that. Swaziland has the Book of Esther’s same recalcitrant queens, rumors of royal poisonings, abductions of chosen virgins by elite warriors, and atmosphere of palace intrigue. And like King Xerxes, Swaziland’s King Mswati III has a dual reputation of demigod on the one hand, and goofy boy king on the other. I stayed in the country for two months, got a bit disgusted with the bureaucracy that had invaded along with the Christians, and I left just weeks before the massacre of the maidens, which it’s tempting to read as providence’s commentary on a too-fundamental adherence to biblical standards.

In sizing up Xerxes’ role in the Esther saga, it’s important to note that the Book of Esther is the B side to the 78 that features the Battle of Thermopylae—all those hard bodies from Zack Snyder’s film 300 and the gigantic King Xerxes, dripping gold and blotting out the sun with arrows. By contrast, the Xerxes depicted in the Book of Esther is flawed, indecisive, easily manipulated. And it may be that Kanner’s Xerxes, huge but human, is the most telling character in her Esther precisely for what distinguishes him from either idealized or demonized masculinity.

Kanner’s Esther does not depart wildly from the Esther formula. The first half recounts Esther’s abduction and year of preparation in the harem, culminating in her one night in the king’s bedroom. Each virgin gets a single chance to earn the crown, and most are discarded, banished to pleasuring Persia’s “Immortal” warriors.

The second half chronicles Esther’s reign and tells the story of her cousin Mordecai being passed over for an important job in favor of Haman, a character often depicted as a kind of proto-Hitler because it’s Haman who initiates the genocide that Esther must cut off at the pass.

In order to prevent the slaughter of the Jews, Kanner’s undercover queen must defy palace protocol. She bursts in on Xerxes without having first been called, a crime punishable by death. There are further subplots in play during this climactic cloak-and-dagger episode, but what’s curious is that an act of defiance would figure so prominently in a story generally held to be about obedience. Christian Esthers toe the line on this count, as on all the others: theirs is not a story in defense of monarchy, but it is a story in defense of patriarchy—at least to the extent that the evangelical Esthers uniformly suggest that women can become powerful only by accepting inferiority and satisfying male carnality. In short, women are women, and men are men—better get used to it.

Woman on the Make

Kanner’s Esther challenges all that gender fatalism. The author begins by giving us an Esther whose virginity indicates nothing about her purity. In fact, she’s not pure at all. The first half of Esther mostly follows the competitive maneuverings among the women with whom Esther has been installed in the palace, and for a time there are echoes of Orange Is the New Black, though this prison has better furniture. Esther arrives, adapts, thrives, and promptly discovers that she is as likely as anyone to abuse authority arbitrarily awarded, and that given the opportunity she will tap the royal wine cellar far more often than a two-thousand-year-old role model really should. Esther is undeniably feminist, but Esther proves herself to be the equal of men by being equally susceptible to power and drink.

Rebecca Kanner’s Esther challenges gender fatalism. It flies in the face of everything Christians have wanted Esthers to do.

This Esther’s fleshly, too. There are surprising moments of cruelty in Esther, such as the opening when Esther finds herself turned on, as her best friend lies dying beside her, by her “Immortal” abductor’s “calves . . . like small, dust covered boulders.” (Throughout, one feels that an R- or even X-rated rough cut has been pared back to PG-13 by an unseen hand.) This proves to be the romance’s cookie-cutter leading man—the only plausible route to the fairy tale’s happily ever after.

But Esther isn’t done being bad! Later, with Prince Charming standing guard just outside the king’s chambers, Esther surprises herself, on the big night, by responding to the carnal charms of King Xerxes: “My flesh started to hum.” Xerxes turns out to be a not totally terrible dude, despite his choice of city-sacking as creative-outlet-of-first-resort. Esther strikes on the correct strategy to win him—that first night, she “den[ies] the king”—but for much of the rest of the book she can’t figure out what it is that makes Xerxes prefer the company of another woman, Halannah. True, Halannah preceded Esther to the palace, but from a strictly pageant queen perspective, Halannah is Esther’s inferior. What gives?

The answer is the book’s rub—or one among several rubs. All turns out well in this Esther—the Jews are saved, Haman and his ten sons sway on the gallows, and to this day there’s a reason for Jewish children to go door to door exchanging gifts. But inside this familiar tale of uplift, something else is going on: Esther discovers that even Xerxes is tired of monarchy and patriarchy. She learns that the king prefers Halannah because she defies his protocols not once in a blue moon, when the destruction of a people is on the line, but more or less on a daily basis. And what Kanner is suggesting here, I think, is not that Jews lucked out in having a masochist in the right place at the right time—which, if true, would occasion a total reimagining of how Purim is observed—but that men, real men, prefer equal partners to obedient women.

In other words, Kanner’s Esther flies in the face of everything Christians have wanted Esthers to do. And as a function of Esther being marketed, like Kanner’s first book, to an unwitting evangelical audience, it amounts to a dirty bomb covertly transported right into the heart of American Christendom.

Esther becomes a book about storytelling as well. After indulging in unladylike appetites for wine, power, and sex, Esther turns to the vice that poses the greatest threat of all to the status quo—ambition.

She learns early from Mordecai that true stories get twisted. And they keep on twisting and twisting until the twists become more important than the facts. Once Esther becomes queen and has a story of her own to tell, she realizes that if she is to survive in history in any kind of recognizable form she can’t leave her tale to the king’s historians. She takes up a pen, keeping her writing a secret because it’s yet another act of defiance. But her goal is anything but private: “I would be a legend yet.” Esther goes on to become the first poorly behaved woman to make history—and in the process, in all likelihood, the first to write her own. In chronicling this transition, Kanner offers a clear rebuttal to those critics and writers who under the guise of celebrating a heroine would scrub out the agency of the eponymous maiden of the Western religious canon’s most baffling episode.

The Good Book, Redefined

Reflecting on the writing of The Turn of the Screw, Henry James both belittled the book as a potboiler (it was the rare instance in which James strived for popularity over art) and savored what he saw as a flawless execution. The latter point was important, he said, because it meant that readers of a “finer interest”—i.e., those who were not normally consumers of potboilers—would find themselves charmed by the technique, by how the author sustained the story’s delicate ambiguity.

The how was not what charmed me in Esther—Kanner’s straightforward prose offers an antidote to King James bluster and fuss—but I did find that my reading came to have a dual quality. On the one hand, there was the story to keep up with; on the other, there was a ghostly overlay of commentary on all the Esthers that preceded it. It became an act of biblical criticism.

That was the lesson for my snob-self. For while it’s true that some popular books are simply vapid, and that some, even some Esthers, are thinly disguised propaganda, there are still others that strive to do the sort of crucial analysis that only books can do. I think these works might be a rare find. It’s true that censors and book banners will continue to focus their attacks on more highbrow transgressors—Atwood, Rushdie, et al. But readers should not overlook more modest melees, and in the process, they may come to savor the singular delights of scampering down from the white tower. Down here, on the crowded and fraught battlefield where ideas of gender, faith, and tribal belonging clash like scimitar and shield, they can bear witness to obscure critical engagements that shed a crucial light on even the loftiest definition of literature.