Amy Ehrlich’s With a Mighty Hand, illustrated by fine artist Daniel Nevins, is an ambitious new book and an exquisitely designed offering. Subtitled The Story in the Torah, it consists of Ehrlich’s adaptation of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, told as a single narrative. And it’s quite unlike any other book I’ve seen this year.
“Oddly enough…a writer who's skeptical about the Bible turns out to be the perfect person to translate it,” states the Kirkus review, which specifically references this from Ehrlich’s introduction to the book:
Anyone who reads the Torah will see that a lot of it doesn’t make sense. It is repetitive, inconsistent, even contradictory….Beyond the illogic created by a series of authors writing over a long period of time, readers will discover many unsettling mysteries in the Torah….The Torah is not transparent. It continues to confound and shock us, and in this way it is ever new.
It’s the Torah’s “fractured history,” Ehrlich notes, that explains these ambiguities which so intrigue her. Her approach, therefore, in With a Mighty Hand was to tell the story of the Torah “without interpretation, just as it is on the page,” thereby retaining its inherent (and what she calls unsettling) perplexities in all their compelling, enigmatic ways. She also let the story guide her, following its central thread, while eliminating what she calls “thickets” of genealogy, law and ritual.
The results are splendid, and the words are helped along by Nevins’ stately illustrations. “It was glorious,” he tells me, “a real dream gig. How often is one called upon to do work with the kind of huge, epic scope and majesty that the Torah requires? When Candlewick asked me if I was interested in doing it, I didn't have to question it at all. I knew it was something I could really sink my teeth into. I spend the vast majority of my time as a fine artist, doing 10-foot wide paintings for museum and gallery exhibitions, almost exclusively abstract. Though I've done a lot of illustration in my past, I really don't seek it out. I think [Candlewick] saw that when I do paint people, there is a kind of folk art meets religious icon quality to what I do that would be appropriate for a re-telling of the Torah.”
Nevins’ illustrations, rendered via oil on wood, are sumptuous and arresting, poetic in the depth of emotion which they convey. This is one of those books marketed as a children’s or YA title that is truly for all ages (as I find all superb picture books and illustrated books to be). Nevins agrees. “I never really thought of it as a children's book. Obviously, the book is filled with very adult situations that Amy Ehrlich did not water down in her elegant verse.” That image you may have of the children’s illustrated Bible in the corner of the Sunday School room when you were young, the one where a crayon or watercolor God is depicted with a long white beard, a walking staff, and lots of beatific smiles? Not so much. Nevins’ world is dramatic, rippling with movement and sometimes slightly surreal.
“For about six months, I just lived with Amy's words,” he explains when I ask about his research. “I read it again and again. It was rather daunting and opaque to me at first, but slowly my mind's eye would begin to formulate an image around a story. The first one to grab me was Jacob wrestling the angel. It's such an ambiguous, moving image, a human wrestling the divine. Once I drew that, I knew I had a foothold, a lens to begin seeing the other stories through.”
He also researched everything he could find about clothing, artifacts, customs, landscape and more, looking at both scholarly documents and artistic portrayals of these stories through the ages. “I wanted to be historically accurate, but not at the expense of the poetic. At one point, I decided that all of the characters would be barefoot. There was something so specific and ordinary about the look of sandals. Poetry justifiably won out over historical accuracy.” And very few paintings came easy, he adds. “Most needed to be revised many times to get the tone right, to get to the essence of the story without artifice, to let the scene breathe.”
Nevins, who lives in Asheville, N.C., was recently awarded a fellowship grant from the North Carolina Arts Council and will be featured in an exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh in January. That’s to say: It’s back to fine art paintings for him. But he tells me that creating the illustrations for With a Mighty Hand has renewed his interest in book art, and he might just have some book ideas settling comfortably in his mind.
If so, I’ll be first in line to see what he does next.
For now, he’s not only helped bring to life a beautiful new book for readers of all ages, but he can also claim this unique distinction, what he calls the book’s Fun Fact: “I think that I am the first artist to depict Adam and Eve without belly buttons. I absolutely stand by that decision.”
WITH A MIGHTY HAND. Text copyright © 2013 by Amy Ehrlich. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Daniel Nevins. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.