March (Catbird, 2006, etc.) shows a Southern teenager getting a few lessons in tolerance after he’s caught vandalizing a synagogue.
Jesse Terrill has a few good reasons to be mad. His mother skipped out of Pottstown years before, his brother in the Marines was killed in a terrorist attack and his father has been living in a mental hospital ever since a violent assault. Though he has a stable home life with his uncle G.T., Jesse’s default mode is anger and confusion. And he’s got company: three buddies who join him late at night—“one of those nights when you want to tear something up”—to drink wine and smoke dope, then break into the B’nai Shalom Synagogue and wreck the place. Jesse is caught and, after withstanding the congregation’s withering glares in court, is put on probation and assigned to perform community service at a retirement home. His chief job is to mind Mendel Ebban, a Holocaust survivor who was forced to prepare bodies for burning in the ovens at Treblinka. Unsurprisingly, much learning ensues. Mendel finally has somebody to get him out of his room, and Jesse gets to pick up some knowledge about shofars, the Warsaw ghetto and Passover. His Talmudic education occurs at the same time that he runs afoul of a former biker-gang leader and gets a lead on the identity of the man who assaulted his father. March’s efforts to craft a commentary about vengeance and forgiveness are consistently strained. Mendel is too bogged down by back story and pedagogy to be a full-blooded character, cookie-cutter thugs and cops shadow Jesse at every turn and a contrived romantic subplot adds little. Worst of all, the author never seems to have a solid grip on Jesse, whose attitudes and reactions shift mainly to serve the plot: One moment he’s referring to a yarmulke as a “goofy hat,” a few pages later he’s musing thoughtfully on the Book of Ruth.
Earnest but deeply flawed, and saccharine when it’s not overstuffed.