Helaine Becker’s Gottika is a powerful retelling of an old Jewish legend about the golem, a magical humanoid being made from clay who is brought to life to protect Jewish towns from anti-semitic attacks. The world that Becker creates in Gottika bears many similarities to Panem and other contemporary YA dystopias, but the reference to Jewish legend turns the into an unsettling allegory for the horrors of the Holocaust.
Fifteen year old Dany is a Stoon, in Western Gottika where Stoons are treated as second class citizens and killed for no reason under the tyrannical rule of Count Pol. Unrest is brewing, and Dany’s father must decide if he must stop trying to keep a low profile and use the secret knowledge he possesses to bring clay to life and transform it into a weapon against Count Pol.
There’s a lot going on in Gottika, multiple plot threads that, though resolved, rarely ever take off. What’s the “staring sickness”, why do all the families in town only have one child each, why is Count Pol kidnapping teenage girls? The final question in particular does have a pretty big significance in the story, but the question feels so tangential, and buried beneath so many other plot points, throughout the story that the payoff feels disjointed.
More powerful are the encounters between Stoons and Count Pol’s soldiers. In one particularly memorable scene, Dany and his father are swimming when soldiers order them out of the water and castigate them for not wearing their hats. The casual injustice, coupled with Dany and his father’s powerlessness to resist, is difficult to read. In another scene, soldiers storm Dany’s house to confiscate his family’s books. The novel breaks from text narration then, switching over to graphics and demonstrating how some horrors are beyond just words.
While more of the main characters are male, I love that the female characters seem to have more complex motivations for their actions. While most teenage girls fear being kidnapped by Count Pol, Dany’s cousin Dalil welcomes it. She is attracted by Pol’s lifestyle, and manages to turn a blind eye to his faults. Later in the story, she is forced to face the truth of Pol’s tyranny, and becomes instrumental in the resistance against it. I love her character arc, how her desire for comfort initially outweighs her loyalty to her people, until she is forced to realize just how much she is condoning by her actions. Dany’s mother as well, quiet and unassuming at first, later reveals a dark secret she’s had to live with for many years. In contrast to Dany and his father’s more traditional heroic roles, I love the nuances and questions raised by Dalil and Dany’s mother’s more problematic arcs.
The horrors of the Holocaust are difficult to discuss, particularly in fiction for children. Gottika isn’t exactly a simple allegory for that, but it does speak to the oppression experienced by certain groups of people. The story is futuristic, but the tone is that of a classic fairy tale. There’s a timelessness to Dany’s story, and despite the supernatural elements, the sense that there have been, and continue to be, far too many Count Pols throughout history.
Thank you to Dancing Cat Books for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, and for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.