An ex-Hippie turned observant Jewish scholar. An awkward nine-year-old girl who becomes a spelling savant after learning Kabbalistic mysticism. A sixteen-year-old boy who chooses Hare Krishna over Judaism. A kleptomaniac mother whose very identity is a lie to her family.
The four disparate characters listed above make up the Naumann family—Saul, Eliza, Aaron, and Miriam—a group that gives new meaning to the word dysfunctional.
Myla Goldberg’s debut novel, Bee Season, follows the story of Eliza’s fifteen minutes of fame during which she competes in a national spelling bee. She and her father bond over the bee and retreat into a world of their own as Saul teaches Eliza the hidden meanings of letters, based on Jewish philosophy. Aaron feels left out of his sister and father’s world and seeks purpose elsewhere. A shy and unpopular teen, Aaron has dealt with bullies all his life. Not until he makes friends with a member of the Hare Krishna group does he feel he has found a place he truly belongs. His absences from home when he attends Krishna meetings go unnoticed by his mother, who tells her family she is at work as a lawyer. She is actually spending her days going from store to store and house to house, stealing random items in a desperate attempt to fill the emptiness inside her. Saul and Miriam’s marriage begins to unravel as does the entire family unit, leaving Eliza to wonder if her and her father’s obsession with words and letters has been the cause of the family’s growing alienation from one another.
Goldberg’s book is a coming-of-age tale as well as a commentary on marriage, religion, and societal values. Publishers Weekly stated: “While coming-of-age stories all bear a certain similarity, Goldberg strikes new ground here, and displays a fresh, distinctive and totally winning voice.” Even though the book is a coming-of age-story centered on juvenile characters, the story is for mature readers only. Booklist noted that “There is so much pain in this powerful first novel about a family's unraveling that it often seems on the edge of unbearable.” However, the painful subject matter is not what makes the book best for mature readers; its descriptions of explicit sexuality are not for young eyes. Also, though Goldberg’s abundance of descriptive language and metaphors make her voice distinctive, they can overcomplicate the narrative at times. The scenes that most stand out in the novel are those describing Eliza and Aaron’s alienation from their peers. Anyone who has ever suffered through the tortures of gym class or faced the horror of finding a place to sit in a school cafeteria will sympathize with the misfit Nauman children. Tender moments between Eliza and Aaron are especially winning and add touches of humor in even the family’s darkest moments. Especially amusing are their complicated maneuvers to get the best cookies at Kiddush lunches. Goldberg splendidly describes Eliza’s feelings as outcast when she writes, “She [Eliza] can't get it out of her head that while she is speeding around in circles waiting to be told when to stop other kids are flying to the moon.”
Bee Season is not a light read, but it is a worthwhile one. As Eliza gains a greater appreciation of words, so do the readers. Goldberg’s exquisite text is almost supernatural in it precision. As The New York Times wrote: "… Bee Season flickers past like a dream.”
Find Bee Season at the KOH Library and Cultural Center today.