Tommy Tenney,
One Night with the King

(Bethany House, 2003)

From a tale thousands of years old, acclaimed nonfiction author Tommy Tenny wakens new life into a dazzling tale of intrigue and romance. Hadassah: One Night with the King tells the story of Esther, the beautiful queen chosen by God to rescue her people from a bloodthirsty massacre. As a Jewish novel of faith and devotion to God, family and husband, this novel outshines many weaker retellings.

Young Hadassah witnesses her family's murder when she is only 7, a horrifying event worsened by the chilling insignias of twisted red crosses that the murderers bear. She grows up in the house of her only surviving relative, her cousin Mordecai. Yet Mordecai keeps Hadassah in seclusion, so fearful is he of revealing anything of their Jewish heritage after so many Jews were murdered. There is little anti-Semitism in Persia, but that lack makes the hovering threat all the more terrifying. Mordecai refuses to wear Jewish clothes or visit the synagogue as he watches twisted crosses appear on the palace walls.

When Queen Vashti defies her king and is banished for it, King Xerxes of Persia orders peasant girls taken from their homes to be his concubines. The loveliest of those chosen in a single night of passion will be elevated far beyond the others, to become the Queen of all Persia. Hadassah is torn from her family, given only a moment to promise Mordecai that she will conceal her Jewish heritage while in the palace. She takes the name Star, later changed to Esther. Within the palace walls, she studies the king, determined to please him unselfishly, rather than luxuriating in the pampering and jewels the other girls insist on. For the first time, she opens herself to God and to love, embracing both in her determination to be a true match for the king.

This is the climax of the book, the most powerful moment, when Esther embraces both romance and the will of God completely, opening herself to a higher power. In this way, she discovers true love, more than obedience or servitude. Esther learns lessons of romance that she teaches to modern generations who read her book, explaining how to fall into deep, permanent love with one's husband.

Haman of the tribe of the Agagites, deadly enemies of the Jews who murdered Esther's family, ascends to power. He issues a proclamation, ordering the systematic murder of all Jews throughout the Persian Empire. Women and children, all will be killed unless Esther can intercede. Yet Esther must risk her life to reach the king, and may well die along with her people.

Esther's forgiveness of the God who allowed her family to die has echoes in the Holocaust, as does much of the book. Hitler, of course, is a descendent of Haman's evil tribe, while the twisted cross has its own well-known associations. This connection strengthens the story and emphasizes its importance in today's world, so far removed from the decadence and violence of Persia.

This tale unfolds in a poignant frame story, where a modern Israeli woman receives a letter from Queen Esther, passed down to each woman of her family just before marriage. In it, Esther shares the secrets of devotion and intimacy, as well as the truth of her heroism. Her modern namesake, Hadassah, learns the skills she needs to support her husband through the difficulty of his surprising future-a revelation held for the story's end. In this way, the ancient story reaches into the new, bridging the generations through their bonds of love and Judaism.

This Biblical tale offers some surprises, including Hadassah's first love, a boy who reaches great influence within the palace. The greatest change is the depth of character that the author creates. Esther, Xerxes, Mordecai and all of the smaller characters love, grieve and feel. This dazzling skill with character brings the story to life in a way that the Bible does not, changing it from a story of heroism to one woman's struggle to come to terms with the God who let her family die, and to finally reach love again.

The historical details behind this love story are also quite amazing. Tactical details of Xerxes's campaign in Greece and details from the Bible showing the root of the hatred between Jews and the Agagites abound in the narrative. Descriptions of the palace, foods and beauty treatments reflecting the opulent Persian Empire will stun readers with their gorgeous depictions. At the same time, Esther's simple faith and courage outshine these descriptions as the character grows from the terrified daughter of murdered parents to the most powerful queen in the world, determined to protect her people, whatever the cost to herself.

Esther's strength of character echoes into the modern day, becoming a powerful icon for Jewish women everywhere.

- Rambles
written by Valerie Frankel
published 16 July 2005

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