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7.14.2011

Queen Esther (1986)

Retold and Illustrated by Tomie dePaola
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Harper and Row
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Continuing my trip through the tale of Queen Esther, I picked up this small volume by the great Tomie dePaola. I thought it would be interesting to refrain from reading the actual text of the Biblical account, and instead stick with picture book representations.

The artwork is distinctly dePaola - he has such a unique style - very simple, very stylized. Usually I think of his characters as possessing an abundance of rosy cheeks and pleasant dispositions. Not so, in this book. A quick flip-through reveals a plethora of dour complexions which occasionally give way to fear, angst and some wrath. Even at the very beginning, as King Ahasuerus sits upon his throne and has all of the beautiful, young women in his kingdom brought before him so that he can select a wife - he doesn't look too happy about it.

King Ahasuerus admired Esther more than all the others. So he chose Esther to be his queen.
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And there he stands, at the left-hand side of the page, holding his royal scepter. There stands Esther, on the right, eyes shut, hand on breast, bowing formally. I would expect this degree of formality with an arranged marriage, but the King has basically let his lust do all the choosing for him! Ah well.

Something this book does which the previous version did not is that it explains what 'purim' is - lots, like dice. We see the wicked Haman - cloaked all in red - casting them to help him determine the best month and the perfect day to kill all the Jews.

Once the purim have spoken, Haman tells the king the Jews must be slaughtered. DePaola very specifically writes, "King Ahasuerus listened and then he ordered the Jews to be killed." [emphasis mine]

I thought that was telling, because in the other version, it was not clear if Ahasuerus was to blame or not. The text left it a bit muddled - for obvious reasons, I think. As I read this line, however, I suddenly became interested in how dePaola was going to resolve the story, now that he has so plainly outed Ahasuerus as the villain.

I did not have long to wait. During the climactic feast - and after touching the royal scepter (?) - Esther says, "If it pleases your Majesty, my wish is that I may live, and that my people may live. We are about to be killed."

"Who dares to do such a thing?" asks Ahasuerus. Really, you have to ask? Or perhaps we are meant to think that his apparent  outrage is an act, in order to cast suspicions off himself? It must have come as a great relief, then, when Esther says, "Our enemy in this cruel man, Haman."

Phew! And to cover his tracks completely: "Hang Haman himself on those gallows!"

So King Ahasuerus stops the Jews from being killed, and...  Er, wait. No, he actually doesn't stop the Jews from being killed. The book says that the King decreed the Jews could "defend themselves against the people who came to destroy them." Come again?

It would be like Hitler having a massive change of heart during the Holocaust: "You know, we're still going to try to exterminate you, but from now on, feel free to try to stop us from exterminating you!"

My hope is that other versions of the story will make this clearer for me!
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Click here for other versions of the story of Queen Esther!
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Click here for more Biblical tales!
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Click here for Jewish Folktales!

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