I've kvetched a few times about the lack of Hanukkah holiday stories. Sometimes it seems like every other romance published from October onward has been hosed down with Christmas, and I know from conversations with friends in publishing that a well-designed Christmas cover paired with a great story can be a huge seller.
Of course, not everyone celebrates Christmas, and the lack of romances portraying other faiths and cultures is something that bugs me as well. Speaking solely for myself, I wish there were more Hanukkah romances, especially this year, when Hanukkah begins the night before Thanksgiving, the earliest it's been in many years. According to Christine Byrne at BuzzFeed, who published a list of Thanksgivukkah recipes in October, Thanksgiving and Hanukkah won't overlap again for 70,000 years.
There are a few Hanukkah romances, some of them out of print, and most of them categories. I rounded up a few of them two years ago. But I have good news! While you're basting the turkey and frying the latkes, there's a new Hanukkah novella to enjoy: Eight Tiny Flames by Crista McHugh, part of the A Very Scandalous Holiday anthology. It's set during World War II, in the 1940s. AND it's lovely!
Novellas like this are always difficult for me to review objectively since at least 30 to 45 percent of my glee is that the Hanukkah romance exists at all. I could get halfway into the story and realize that the hero and heroine are anthropomorphic candles and still be all, "But it's a Hanukkah novella! WOOHOO!" So take my review here with the small grain of salt that merely by existing in the first place, I want to hug this novella and bake it some cookies. Or rugelach. K?
The story takes place in a field hospital in Belgium during WWII, with one chapter devoted to each night of Hanukkah. The heroine, Lt. Ruth Mencher, is a nurse in the 64th Evacuation Unit, a woman who wears a visible star of David necklace and is pretty upfront about the fact that she's Jewish. This is unique not just because of the time period but because not that far away are, you know, the Nazis. All of them, or at least many of them.
The hero, Dr. Joseph Klein, is a quiet and intense doctor in the field hospital. He's also Jewish, but he's very quiet about it. The differences in their upbringing—Ruth in a Jewish community in New York, Joseph in Texas where his was the only Jewish family in town—influences how they interact with their own culture and faith during the course of the story. It's not that Joseph is ashamed of his faith at all; he's used to being very circumspect about it, knowing that he might be treated differently (and poorly) because of it. He suspects Lt. Mencher hasn't advanced due to the fact that she's Jewish and doesn't hide it at all, which reinforces his desire to keep his faith to himself.
When the story begins, it's the first night of Hanukkah, and Ruth has been sent a very small menorah in a care package from her family. The battle and the medical emergencies around her are intense, and her job is even more so, but she is determined to take time each evening when the sun sets (Jewish days begin at sundown) to mark each night of Hanukkah. Ruth has had a bit of a crush on Joseph for weeks, but his demeanor, not to mention the fact that he's a doctor and above her in rank, has kept her quiet about her interest. When it's time to light the candles, however, Ruth is not about to be dissuaded from inviting him to join her each night.
Structuring the story into eight pieces and having their courtship come into focus and establish itself in only eight nights might seem like too compressed a time period, but the fact that they've worked together for awhile and were already aware of one another made the short timeline work.
The part that always trips me up during Hanukkah romances—or romances that explain any cultural event or observance—is explaining to the reader what the characters are doing and why. There's a very high likelihood of "As you know, Bob," dialogue and explanations that seem wooden and clunky and unlikely. Given that one of my pet peeves is "people don't really talk like that," I'm particularly wary of the increased possibility of explanatory segments that only exist to educate the reader.
Fortunately, that doesn't happen much in this story. As the nights progress, Joseph finds himself looking forward to his time with Ruth. Ruth involves the rest of the field hospital in her observance, bartering for the ingredients to make latkes, which the rest of the soldiers are eager to try. The scent of frying potatoes in oil causes Joseph to remember the holidays he spent with his family and to think of home, and he's unable to pretend he hasn't noticed Ruth any longer. Outside of Hanukkah, he probably wouldn't make a move due to their difference in rank and the boundary, he calls it, between doctors and nurses.
But within the space of the festival (Hanukkah is, liturgically speaking, a minor holiday festival that's become more prominent due to its proximity to Christmas), he isn't able to look away from her. He can't stop himself from thinking about how she makes him feel, and how much he comes to savor the time he has with her as they commemorate the nights that they have in common. And all the markers of Hanukkah are there—the food, the dreidel, the blessings and songs, the menorah—without the awkward explanation of what these things are to a character who already knows.
Ruth is as focused on figuring out Joseph and his reticence as she is on doing her job to the very best of her ability. She's tough and tenacious and yet very considerate and caring in both her job duties and her interactions with Joseph. She anticipates his orders, but doesn't do so with subordination; they have a limited time to care for each person, and if she knows what needs to happen, she's going to try to get everything done as soon as possible. Ruth is the same way with Joe and Hanukkah: She has a limited time to get to know Joseph in a more personal way, and she's going for that, too.
The other aspect of the story that's charming is the role the time period plays in the story, not just the presence of Nazi Germany and the war, but the social restrictions of the 1940s and Joseph's concern for her reputation, plus the restrictions of the code of conduct for military personnel. Their being together each evening has layers of risk built in that accumulate as the holiday progresses. Joseph and Ruth tease one another in ways that reveal their familiarity and comfort level, and their awareness of their differences in rank and the risks in their taking time alone so much. There are times when Ruth's faith scares Joseph, both personally and professionally, but he's still drawn to her, and when they're together, there's peace—a universally precious commodity.
As I was writing this review, I went back to my copy to make sure I had the details right, and ended up re-reading the whole thing, even though I have about 60 zillion things on my to-do list. That's one of the best endorsements I can give a story: I can't stop myself from re-reading it.
Happy Hanukkah, y'all.Sarah Wendell is the co-creator, editor and mastermind of the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. She loves talking with romance readers, and hopes you'll share your new favorite romance reading recommendations. You can find her on Twitter @smartbitches, on Facebook, or on her couch, most likely with her eyeglasses turned towards a book.