Tilting At Windmills: My Father’s Books - Encore
Published: July 1st, 2022
By: Shelly Reuben

Tilting At Windmills: My Father’s Books - Encore

Years ago, I wrote about my father’s books, which were (and are) enthralling. I am bringing back that original column, as I think you will enjoy reading about them today.

I was already in my thirties when I open the first page of Dad’s favorite novel, THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO. He had been counseling me to read it for…oh, I’d say about twenty years. Of course, I hadn’t listened. He was my father, for heaven’s sake. What did he know about literature?

Just about everything, it turns out, as Samuel Reuben was of that breed of first generation Americans who read to be transported: From poverty. From drudgery. From life’s cruelties. From repetitive and unrelenting monotony.

I will set the scene: Young Sammy, raised by Yiddish speaking Russian immigrant parents, with two brothers and a sister, living in a tenement on Chicago’s South Side. He started working in his father’s clothing store on Maxwell Street when he was eight or nine years old, and he owned and managed his own tuxedo rental store by age fourteen. But in the secret recesses of his mind, Sammy was residing all that time with swashbucklers, escaped convicts, questing crusaders, villainous clergy, and brave and noble knights.

Let me tell you about three of the books that my father loved: THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO by Alexander Dumas, IVANHOE by Sir Walter Scott, and THE WANDERING JEW by Eugene Sue.

First things first: The Count.

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He was born Edmond Dantès, a humble young sailor so honest and so capable that he had been given command of his first ship, the Pharaon, by the ship’s owner in acknowledgement of his masterful sailing. In an act of vile treachery, he is denounced as a Bonapartist and consigned to the Château d'If, a bleak and terrible dungeon from which the wretched are never released. There, he encounters the Abbé Faria, a priest who imparts vast stores of knowledge, gives Dantès the map to a buried treasure, and provides the means for his escape. I can’t even begin to tug at the edges of the rest of the story, but I can briefly allude to Dantès first taking on the identity of Sinbad the Sailor, then the Count of Monte Cristo, and finally wreaking havoc on those who betrayed him. The book is thrilling. It has adulterers, bandits, children born out of wedlock, a beautiful poisoner, mind-altering drugs, Aladdin’s caves, Nubian servants, Sultans, unscrupulous politicians, and even a beautiful slave girl with whom the Count eventually falls in love.

Whenever I read The Count of Monte Cristo, I am the beneficiary, not only of wonderful characters and a marvelously Machiavellian plot, but also the gift of imagining my own dear dad — marriage, children, and adult responsibilities far off in the future — clutching this same remarkable novel in his hands as he plunges into the miracle of its pages, in much the same way that I do now.

I was equally reluctant to begin IVANHOE, which I must have read by now eight or ten times.

Ah, Ivanhoe!

How my father loved it. When I was in college, he would write long letters to me with a thick nibbed fountain pen. Wonderful, thought-provoking epistles about Rebecca, gifted with the art of healing, Lady Rowena, descendant of Saxon royalty, and Ivanhoe, the noble knight they both loved. I also came to know Rebecca’s father, Isaac of York, the vilified Jewish moneylender who saves Ivanhoe’s life, and Cedric the Saxon, who disinherits his son and tries to force Rowena into a loveless marriage with a dottering fool. Added to the mix was a jovial, flagrantly immoral (and truly adorable) hermit, who turns out to be Friar Tuck ... King Richard the Lion-Hearted, traveling incognito as the Sluggish Knight ... and one of the most interestingly evil characters of all time — Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert — a Knight Templar so consumed by passion for the beautiful Rebecca that, when she rejects his advances, he denounces her as a witch.

Threatened by his continued attentions, she exclaimed, in horror, “Tempter ... Begone! I hold thee as my worst and most deadly enemy!”

And as he continued to approach, she stood “...on the very verge of the parapet, with not the slightest screen between her and the tremendous depth below. Unprepared for such a desperate effort, for she had hitherto stood perfectly motionless, Bois-Guilbert had neither time to intercept nor to stop her. As he offered to advance, she exclaimed, ‘Remain where thou art, proud Templar, or at thy choice advance!—one foot nearer, and I plunge myself from the precipice; my body shall be crushed out of the very form of humanity upon the stones of that court-yard, ere it become the victim of thy brutality!’”

Of the three books that my father cherished, the only one I have not finished is THE WANDERING JEW. The plot? Well, it involves the Renepont family unknowingly the beneficiaries of an inheritance that, over the centuries, has grown to a staggering amount. The Reneponts are the good guys. The bad guys, angling to murder them off and steal their fortune, are the Jesuits.

That is the impossible-to-cram-into-a-nutshell version.

Among the intriguing characters who compose the Renepount family are Siberian orphans, an Indian prince, a Parisian workman, and an honorable factory owner. Those out to destroy them include poisoners (poison is big in French novels), diabolical priests, and a sect of murderers based on a society of stranglers in India who kill for their religion: the Thuggees.

Why, you may wonder, have I not yet finished reading THE WANDERING JEW? My fondness for one of the doomed Renepounts is the reason. Adrienne de Cardoville is innocent. She is kind. She is intelligent. She is beautiful. Her credulous aunt, in cahoots with a former lover, has had her imprisoned in an insane asylum. And I know ... I just know that when I turn the next page, someone ... a Thuggee or a Jesuit or a malevolent physician ... is going to sneak into Adrienne’s cell and kill her. I do not want Adrienne de Cardoville to die, so, I categorically refuse to turn that page.

One of these days, however, I will. For the simple pleasure of re-visiting my father’s imagination.

Because, by the sweet and simple process of reading the same words that he read and partaking in the same romantic adventures that once stirred his soul, I can enter a time machine and return to a day when, older, wiser, and far better versed in literature than I, he held out a book to me and said, “Read this.”

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And lucky me, eventually (granted, it took me way too long), that is exactly what I did.

Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2022. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com