The Power of the Word

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Eliza Naumann knows that her fifth-grade class is made up of "students from whom great things should not be expected." Somehow she missed the cut back in the second grade that exalted the TAG (talented and gifted) children and left Eliza and her fellow mediocrities to plod along as best they could. So when her teacher asks Eliza's group to stand up and take part in their first spelling bee, the little girl fully expects to sit down again very quickly. Instead, she wins the competition in her class and then her school. Next come triumphs at the district and area levels, and Eliza qualifies for the national finals in Washington.

This unlikely progression forms the central plot of Myla Goldberg's Bee Season (Doubleday; 275 pages; $22.95), a winningly eccentric and intriguing first novel. Eliza's discovery of her talent at spelling may sound like the stuff of human-interest news items, but Goldberg is up to something more demanding here than simply warming readers' hearts. She portrays not only Eliza's happy successes but the unexpected, upsetting effects they have on the other three members of her family.

Her somewhat dreamy father Saul, the cantor at Beth Simcha synagogue, sees Eliza's skills with the alphabet as a sign that she is a "mystical prodigy" and begins training her for spelling competitions and for greater, more spiritual challenges ahead. "What do you and a Torah scribe have in common?" he asks her, and then answers when she falters: "Both spelling bees and Torah scribes share the idea that a word should be constructed perfectly or not at all."

Saul's obsessive attention to Eliza comes at the expense of her older brother Aaron, who is being bullied at school and who feels his own religious aspirations, closely modeled on his father's, unfulfilled. And then there is Miriam, the Naumann wife and mother, whose already pronounced remoteness from her husband and children grows apace while Eliza and Saul are sequestered in his study, poring over dictionaries. Miriam too is on a spiritual quest, although it oddly manifests itself first in shoplifting and then in breaking into and robbing houses.

Goldberg's narrative, written entirely in the present tense, shifts smoothly back and forth among the four main characters, tracing the adventures of each one over the year or so covered in the novel. This technique emphasizes the essential isolation of each family member, how a genteel unwillingness to cause scenes or make hurtful comments has atrophied into an inability to say anything truthful at all. Miriam is simply baffled by her children; Saul's parental love is directed more at what they can become than at the needy young people they happen to be. Although she craves victories, Eliza also begins to feel that winning spelling bees is a necessary precondition to her family's happiness.

Some of the events that unfold in Bee Season, notably Miriam's worsening episodes of kleptomania, seem a little contrived. But Goldberg engenders considerable suspense around both Eliza's string of spelling successes and the fates of the other Naumanns. And her descriptions of Eliza's strange linguistic mastery--"The letters are magnets, her brain a refrigerator door"--are humorous and, in a way that Eliza's father would appreciate and understand, mystical.