by Gerald Kolpan
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
Magic Words loosely weaves a surprising group of fascinating but lesser known historical figures into an often humorous, sometimes gory, always amazing tale of the lengths to which people will and will not go to survive. Julius Meyer, a Jew born in Prussia in 1839, emigrated to America as a boy and learned six Indian dialects, owned a trading post in Omaha, and cultivated friendships with Indian chiefs he served as an interpreter. Compars and Alexander Hermann were famed stage illusionists in Europe and America, possibly related to Meyer. Standing Bear was a Ponca Indian chief who played the key role in a court case establishing the humanity of Indians.
Disembarking at the Castle Garden station, impish Julius uses his gift for languages to tease fellow immigrants, while Alexander resorts to magic tricks to get out of the hot water his young cousin lands them in. They will be in and out of hot water until readers turn the last page. Julius is taken captive by Ponca Indians. Compars retires and entrusts his trade secrets to Alexander, but plots to sabotage his magic act. Alexander hires a former prostitute, beautiful but murderous, as his assistant. Standing Bear struggles to keep his people alive while they are moved from reservation to reservation, culminating tragically with the Trail of Tears.
The characters leap off the page, as colorful and exciting as a Hermann magic trick. Death-defying challenges confront them, requiring exceptional courage and cleverness to surmount. If the inner lives of the characters never become quite developed enough for their plights to move hearts, their adventures never fail to grip the imagination. Sticklers for historical accuracy may be annoyed that Magic Words alters a host of minor factual details, but the alterations serve a gripping story about the illusions, lies, and betrayals that, in truth, haunted the American West. When Julius is told, "as an Indian you have become the best Jew I have ever known," the words feel honest. (2012; 403 pages, including an Epilogue distinguishing fact from fiction)
More about Magic Words at Powell's Books, Amazon.com or The Book Depository
Interview with author Gerald Kolpan
Other adventure novels with Jewish heroes and heroines:
Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon (2007), about a pair of unlikely tenth-century con-men who travel the Silk Road. See review or more info at Powell's Books.
The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich (2011), about a swashbuckling Jewish midwife in sixteenth-century Venice. See review or more info at Powell's Books.
A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss (2000), a thriller about a retired Jewish pugilist who works as a private detective in eighteenth-century London. More info
Nonfiction about characters in Magic Words:
Jews Among the Indians by M.L. Marks (1992). More info
I Am a Man: Chief Standing Bear's Journey for Justice by Joe Starita (2010). More info
The Magic Brothers: Carl and Alexander Herrmann by I.G. Edmonds (1978). More info
Julius Meyer, historical photos and a few biographical details at Mitchell Kramer's quasifroggyblog
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