When I tell Mary Glickman some good news, she tips her glass of red wine at me and announces, "Mazel tov!" I'm tickled by almost everything Glickman says, all of which is highlighted by her quirky interview location, a small Mexican joint off of Maybank Highway. She plans on attending a bluegrass show at the Pour House after our chat, her fedora-adorned husband in tow.
The Lowcountry author's first three novels, Home in the Morning, One More River, and Marching to Zion, tracked both the Southern Jewish experience along with the plight of enslaved African Americans. Drawing parallels between these exiled populations, Glickman, who converted to Judaism in her 20s, decided to embark on a narrative about America's first maligned peoples, Native Americans, in her latest novel, An Undisturbed Peace.
Glickman weaves the stories of a young Jewish man, Abrahan Sassaporta Naggar, with the lives of an exiled middle-aged Native American woman, Marian, and an enslaved African-American man, Jacob. The story is breathtaking in its breadth. At first I even doubted the novel's ability to cover so much ground.
However, there was no need to worry. Glickman is an old pro. "I've been doing this for a while," she says. And she doesn't just mean writing.
Glickman first became interested in the Jewish faith in high school. At the time she began to feel a growing distance between herself and her family's Catholicism. "Sisters would say, 'Faith is a gift,' and I would wonder, 'Does everyone get the gift?'" she laughs. Drawn to the stories in the Old Testament, Glickman says, "There's nothing like the Bible for passion and human frailty."
There's no shortage of passion in An Undisturbed Peace. The novel opens with Abrahan, or Abe, spending a week of intense love making at Marian's hidden forest cabin. Marian, who also goes by her Native American name, Dark Water, puts Abe under the kind of spell that can only ever be created by one's first love.
A peddler by trade, Abe arrived in America after 18 years as a poor, bullied Jewish boy in London. Glickman often acknowledges how much better settlers treat Abe and his boss, who happens to be his uncle, than people treated them back home. And while Jews are treated much more favorably in the New World than they were in London, Abe still struggles with his religious identity. Abe grapples with the same questions of faith that Glickman admits to herself. Recalling her conversion, her crisis of faith, and her current, nonchalant, but still reverent, practice, Glickman says, "Judaism is very culturally pleasing — it's connected to the past."
As with any historical fiction, the novel is chock full of facts, making it abundantly clear that Glickman has done her research. "You have to absorb just what you need to," she says of her fact-finding, a skill she's picked up in various hum-drum writing jobs over the years. She found historical incidents she could weave into Abe's peddling business, like Charles Goodyear's early use of rubber and its initial failure as a product, be it as boots or containers for goods — it melted in sunlight.
Veteran Lowcountry novelist Pat Conroy endorses An Undisturbed Peace, with words that grace the cover saying, "The finest depiction of the Trail of Tears that I've ever read." While the novel certainly acknowledges the trail, it doesn't spend all of its pages detailing its horrors.
"It's not a very good novel to have 200 pages of people traveling through snow," says Glickman. Instead, An Undisturbed Peace builds entire lives slowly over many pages, connecting the reader to individuals before it zooms out and shows the near destruction of an entire people.
The trail started with Andrew Jackson's 1830 Indian Removal Act, and led to the removal of all Native Americans in the Eastern United States to designated reservations in the West over the period of 20 years. In methods that pre-date the horrors of the Holocaust, American settlers rounded up Native Americans by the thousands — many died by disease before the trek out West even started.
"They tried so hard and so long to hold onto their land," says Glickman. "People were trying to be European. They kept slaves so they'd be seen as white."
In her lengthy depiction of the process of holding tight to a quickly dissolving land, Glickman gives readers a taste of how the Trail of Tears robbed Native Americans of a life they thought they could have, but one American settlers would never allow them. Charming and chatty, Glickman is a woman of many layers and I wonder, how does she tap into the deep sorrow of history? How does she know these characters so intimately? Glickman shrugs and says, "If you give characters that kind of zeitgeist, people will respond."