The Book of Esther in the Bible tells that Queen Esther, living in the women’s quarters of the Persian king, had seven handmaidens to serve her. Based on this brief but important part of the biblical text, as well as on various rabbinic and historical sources, Judith Pransky has created a full character in The Seventh Handmaiden. In the novel, Darya, the seventh handmaiden of the title, is the center of a complex and compelling story about hidden identity, Jewish survival, and female solidarity. There have been many literary retellings and new interpretations of Esther’s story, but Pransky’s version for young adults adds new dimensions to this rich narrative source. Readers will be engrossed in Darya’s development from a powerless, enslaved child to a strong and introspective young woman, and they will meet a Queen Esther not previously depicted in fiction.
The Persian Empire of the ancient world was pluralistic and relatively tolerant of religious and ethnic differences, but social and economic class was still rigidly defined. In Pransky’s novel, women may lack power over their own lives, but their interactions with one another leads to the formation of loyal relationships. As an enslaved person, Darya is completely under the control of others, but when the novel opens, her owner is an army captain with enlightened ideas about the education of women; he has purchased Darya as a companion to his young daughter, and he allows both girls to be educated. His servant Jaleh and her young daughter Parvaneh become like a mother and sister to Darya, who has no memories of her own family. Pransky provides accurate details about daily life in this meticulously researched work, and she avoids anachronisms. Darya, Jaleh, Parvaneh, and other key figures are not vehicles for modern ideals, but rather human beings with believable inner lives defined by their era and place.
Esther emphasizes to Darya that, in spite of a royal marriage she did not choose, she rejects any sense of victimization. Her husband is Xerxes, the Greek name for the Persian king traditionally associated with Ahasuerus. In the novel, he is not an exaggerated buffoon nor is he a cruel despot, but rather he is erratic and self-centered, causing Esther constant tension in her relationship with him. Pransky also chooses to remove the romanticized aspect of his devotion to Esther; his once-favorite wife is aware that his feelings for her have inevitably faded. In contrast, both Darya and Parvaneh hope for the possibility of marriage with a man who will treat them with dignity as well as love.
Darya and Esther follow parallel paths, each searching in different ways for their identities and their purposes in life. The book contains a mystery about Darya’s origins before her enslavement and also follows Esther’s progress towards fulfilling her destiny. Although the well-known facts of the Purim story emphasize the king’s reversal of Haman’s plot against the Jews, here his intervention is much more passive. The Judeans throughout the empire need to fight a civil war against Haman and his allies, and Queen Esther becomes a leader, not only a wife who courageously tests her husband’s devotion. Even her famous moment of daring to plead with him is framed as the act of a self-assured woman: “Esther remained perfectly still, returning his gaze, not explaining, not pleading, simply looking at him steadily and allowing him whatever time he needed.” Throughout this novel of female strength, women watch and listen, but they are also seen and heard.
This highly recommended story includes author’s notes that provide historical context and explain which characters are wholly fictional.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.