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The Tale-Teller

by Susan Glickman

Susan Glickman weaves history, fantasy, and adventure into her second novel, inspired by the true story of Esther Brandeau, a Jewish girl born in France in the early 18th century who disguised herself as a boy in order to flee to the New World. Esther arrives in the colony of New France in the guise of Jacques Lafargue, but when officials discover she is a woman, she is confined to Intendant Hocquart’s home while her identity is investigated and a decision made about her fate.

Like Scheherazade, Esther is a gifted storyteller, and during her year in captivity, her tales entrance those around her – first the servants in Hocquart’s household, and later the Quebec aristocracy. Esther’s stories span generations, cultures, and continents, crossing lines of gender, race, and socio-economic status. Her portrayals of subjects such as interracial marriage and cross-dressing seem scandalously radical to the conservative Christian inhabitants of New France. As her listeners begin to fall in love with the stories – which offer hope, adventure, and escape – they begin also to fall in love with the teller.

The reader, too, comes to know Esther through her tales, since her backstory is revealed only at the novel’s close. Until that point, her yarns act as the mechanism for revealing her values, dreams, and beliefs. Though religious persecution is not at the centre of the novel, the social and political atmosphere of the time is a constant backdrop, and it’s no surprise that Esther, a persecuted refugee, tells stories of acceptance, tolerance, and love.

Although beautifully crafted, the narrative sometimes reads like a textbook. Nevertheless, like her protagonist, Glickman manages to keep her audience spellbound most of the time. The novel starts off slowly, but quickens as the reader is drawn into Esther’s tales. Somewhere along the way, the reader becomes enraptured with the mystery surrounding this girl and the stories she tells.