[Tuesday Reading Room] How We Avenged The Blums by Nathan Englander

This story comes from Englander’s short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank: Stories.

The title of the collection made me a bit nervous, I’ll confess. I’m not Jewish and I wasn’t – until last year – American, and I wasn’t sure where Englander was going with that Anne Frank reference.

I needn’t have worried. All the rave reviews were well earned.

The stories are universal in appeal, dealing with everything from growing up in a small town, feeling different (and who hasn’t?), to navigating the waters of relationships, to the world of the elderly at a summer retreat (don’t call it a ‘camp’!), from the very human costs of founding of an Israeli settlement, to the experience of an all-American boy visiting a peep show (and the ghosts of his past).

“How We Avenged The Blums” is the third story in the collection and feels like any one of the ‘it was tough to be the nerd in middle school’ stories you might read written by anyone bookish from any background. The boys in this story are different because they are Jewish and attend the Yeshiva school rather than the public school. When one of their classmates is attacked by bullies, the boys set about planning their revenge. They are almost comically unqualified for the job…until the fortuitous arrival of Boris, a Russian Jew, veteran of both the Russian and Israeli armies. The boys persuade Boris to help train them and spend weeks preparing for a showdown with the bullies.

The story is immersive, dropping the reader into the world of a 1980s suburban Jewish community of boys on the edge of adulthood, of adults preoccupied with the community’s problems in the wider world, of expectations and cultural references that you don’t have to have known  to nevertheless ‘grok’.

The writing is utterly engrossing. Englander spoons out cultural details and historical references in perfect portions while driving the story with strong characters. He evokes the panic and hopelessness of the bullied middle-schoolers without ever preaching. And then ends the story perfectly: maintaining the boys’ perspective, allowing the reader to filter it and figure out how the story should affect them.

This is a great example, for writers, of how to lead a reader right up to the point of what you want to say, but not to ram it down their throats — and not to leave them feeling disappointed either. This story definitely ends. It just doesn’t end with the author standing up on a soap box and saying, “now, in case you missed my point…”

I recommend the whole collection.

Have you read this story? What did you think?

How do you feel about stories that evoke a very specific time/place/community? Do you like to learn about others? Do you feel disconnected from it? Do you ever write this way?

Leave a comment and let’s talk!