History meets metaphor and magical realism in Katherine Locke’s new young adult novel, This Rebel Heart. Encompassing in one continuous story the fate of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust and Hungary’s postwar status as a Soviet satellite nation, the book raises questions about identity and commitment. Both the structure of the narrative and the internal conflicts of its characters challenge readers to reject binary oppositions. Jews, for instance, were victims of the Nazis, but also of their fellow Hungarians; and some Jews collaborated with the oppressive pro-Soviet regime to deny their Jewish kin human rights.
Csilla Tisza is a young Jewish woman who lost most of her extended family when Hungary’s Jews were deported and killed by the Nazis. Her parents survived, only to fall victim after the war to antisemitic government purges. She works as a typist at a Budapest newspaper, whose editor largely accepts the pervasive censorship of all Hungarian media. Desperate for a new beginning, Csilla is about to escape the country when events and relationships radically change her goals.
The colorlessness of Soviet domination, where the once-vibrant city itself has become a gray ghost of its past, is a central motif of the novel. Social activism, love, and the pursuit of truths about her late father interact to transform Csilla. Her victimhood will never be erased, but her developing solidarity with several ambiguous figures changes her forever. Female friends restricted by social conventions, gay and bisexual men forced to live in the shadows of repression, and a paradoxically comforting angel of death all influence this painful process of growth.
At the core of the novel is Csilla’s Jewish identity, which remains constant despite the otherwise unsteady nature of her life. Csilla’s family includes a range of religious observance but a shared inheritance of folkloric traditions. Prayer, ethical precepts, and rich portraits of supernatural beings are deeply rooted in Csilla’s consciousness. Inspired by the famous teaching of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, she understands that the world is a narrow and tenuous bridge that one must navigate without fear. When Hungary’s apparent chance at freedom demands existential choices, the Jewish core of her being provides an inalienable source of courage.
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.