Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem by Steve Niles, Matt Santoro, & Dave Wachter
Though I’ve read multiple golem tales over the years, I became aware of their history the most fully after having read the extremely well-researched SF novel He, She and It by Marge Piercy. That was about twenty years ago, and I’ve been on the lookout for quality golem stories ever since. Breath of Bones: A Tale of the Golem is one of the best I’ve ever read, and it’s written by Steve Niles and Matt Santoro as a story that is appropriate even for young adult readers, a difficult trick to pull off when writing about the persecution of Jews by Nazis. Even more impressive is that this emotionally-powerful work is less than eighty pages long.
The story is a simple one: A young boy, Noah, sits on a wall in a small Jewish town. He waits for his father to return from war every day, but we, along with his grandfather, know that his father will never return. With all the men gone, only the women, children, and elderly remain in a depopulated and despairing community. Their quiet life is interrupted when a British plane crashes in a field, and Noah rushes to help the injured pilot. His grandfather knows that the smoke from the plane will draw the Nazis to their otherwise ignored town, bringing unwanted attention. The grandfather must deal with a moral conflict with his grandson as audience: Should he give in to his impulse to save the town or show kindness to a stranger and offer refuge and care? The Nazis are on their way, and a decision must be made fast.
As you might expect, the golem comes to the defense of the Jewish town, but Niles, who wrote the script, makes sure that the manner in which the golem is brought to life is of major significance: All the physically able members of the town work as a team in filling buckets with mud, transporting those buckets to the shed, and shaping the large golem. Through community and faith and prayer, the golem is called up to serve a righteous cause.
I love Breath of Bones. It’s hard to convey fully why this book is as good as it is given the brief summary above. Part of what makes it so good is the brevity. Some of the emotional punch is created because it can be read quickly in a single sitting. And then re-read. But the most important part of the story is the art. Dave Wachter’s art captures and conveys the emotions of the characters so effectively that I hardly noticed that the art was the cause of that emotional impact until I went back and reread the scenes that had the most emotional force: I was most moved at the lowest point in the story when we see Noah, tears streaming down his face, pounding on the lifeless figure of the apparently failed project of the golem. This moment before the golem comes to life is filled with effective pathos because of the art; words could not have had the same impact in a scene such as this one. There are many more scenes I could describe that are like this one.
If you are a fan of golem stories, this book is a must-read. Also, if you want to teach others about the golem and his importance (or at the very least, get someone interested in the golem tradition), this book is a great introduction to that history. Honestly, I don’t think it is an exaggeration to claim that Breath of Bones is flawless. It has a timeless feel about it even though it’s paradoxically clearly situated in a specific time and place. I hope you will get a copy or two or three and share with others this short, but moving and important, story that is an impressive addition to the already-rich literary and religious tradition of the golem.