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My preferences are not important. Just look at what I've read, note what's lacking, and tell me to read it posthaste.

Defiance: The Bielski Partisans - Nechama Tec

For a long time I have been looking for a version of the Robin Hood story to blow my socks off. When I was little, I watched Disney’s Robin Hood, and also saw Kevin Costner’s infamous turn as the Prince of Thieves. I can clearly recall the romantic emotions those versions of the story drew out of me. Time and perspective have, as one may guess, tarnished my view of those films. Since then I have kept my eye out for a work of fiction whose objective quality lives up to the character’s impact that has lingered, despite the early versions of Robin Hood’s story to which I was exposed. I have seen the iconic Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, and I even gave BBC’s Robin Hood television series a try. None of them struck home. The Errol Flynn version was wholesome to the point of obscenity, its Technicolor pageantry far better suited to a spoof than a straight romance. The BBC series tried for a playfully anachronistic approach, but that was equally underwhelming. Ridley Scott, and screenwriter Brian Helgeland tried a sober tack with a tie-in to the origins of the Magna Carta just for a twist: an interesting idea, but disappointingly carried off. As I understand it, Hollywood is taking yet another stab at the character, and trying for a still darker approach.

It is no surprise, given the glut of gritty and realistic treatments that have been administered to characters like Batman and James Bond, that Robin Hood was due for a makeover. We all grow up with a certain number of romantic ideals and role models, and as we grow older, discouragement can easily shake the high regard in which we hold them. We know that the world is different from the one we grew up believing in, but our idealism and romanticism are stubborn. People plagued by discouragement clamor for heroes they can believe in, that somehow reconcile the world as they once knew it to be, and the world as they have come to realize it. Many artists—often discouraged adults looking for a hero themselves—rush to give the people what they want, and pick up a nice fat paycheck in the process.

Characters that we gravitate to as children, like Robin Hood or Batman, are just asking to be revitalized for the sake of not just children, but for all the discouraged adults. Grown-ups want their heroes to prove that they can exist just as vitally in the real world as they can in an idealized one as children do. Sometimes these efforts bear surprisingly moving and insightful results, but often our attempts to revitalize our heroes and make them real only throws their superhuman and unrealistic accomplishments into sharper relief; rather than successfully allowing our heroes to grow up along with us, we have only regressed into childish fantasies.

Having been disappointed in my search through fiction’s boundaries for a Robin Hood story that rings true, I have been forced to do what many lovers of romance, fantasy, and other such fiction, like myself are reluctant to do: delve into actual history. The story I found in Nechama Tec’s excellent book is moving and engaging in a fashion not often accomplished by a reimagining of a masked martial artist or a disenfranchised Saxon nobleman.

As one may guess from the paragraphs above, I can’t help but feel a tad out of place in this book’s readership. I am no WWII buff, and am certainly not the reader Tec had in mind when she researched and wrote this book. Though I was, of course, eager to learn about a neglected dynamic of the struggle between the Jews and the Third Reich, I was eager, first and foremost, to read the story of a charismatic leader who was forced to retreat into the wilderness, overcame the odds, and rose to the defense of the helpless; in short, I wanted to read the story of the real-life Robin Hood my 12-year-old self had been craving for so long.

The story of Robin Bielski of Locksley Belarus is every bit as moving and insightful as I could have hoped. Tec makes no bones about the high regard in which she held her subject, along with Bielski’s followers. Though not interested in giving some poor geek a revitalization of a superhero or folk legend, she was very clearly interested in the idea of heroism. She wanted the world to know that there was a man who achieved something extraordinary, and a group of individuals who struggled through desperate circumstances, and rather than resorting to survival of the fittest, they practiced a radical breed of compassion, and lived to tell the tale.

There is always the danger, equally real when contending with historical heroes as it is with fictional ones, that admiration may so overcome us that we may swallow whole our hero’s faults along with their virtues. We are often tempted to dismiss critiques leveled against them, afraid that the good they achieved will be overlooked. Tuvia Bielski bore his share of faults and missteps, both on a personal level, and in his capacity as a leader. Tec gives voice to dissenting opinions among the surviving partisans along with the prevailing and positive view held in the Bielski otriad.

Bielski, though dedicated to his cause of helping people incapable of rendering him like service—women, the very old, and the very young—, struggled to make sure that everyone was looked after equally. There were often imbalances in the treatment people received in camp, some ostracized to a degree because they could not fight or contribute as craftsmen. Hierarchies formed, preferences were given—not always justly—and discontent often arose. The noble creed of “steal from the rich to give to the poor” was also not always in perfect practice. Bielski and the people he protected were desperate for provisions, and the local peasants often suffered raids from his scouting parties, even though they were poor and struggling themselves.

The conditions were harsh. Bielski and his partisans became harsh because of them, for all the compassion they sought to live out. Tec lays all these complications out for her readers, giving accounts as given by Tuvia Bielski himself, his inner circle, and several of the more discontented partisans as well. The account herein is all the more heroic for its humanity, its struggle, and its imperfection. I am not alone in saying that Bielski was a hero, and I don’t think it an act of blind hero-worship to say so. Handing out this appellation need not open us up to making an icon, a saint, or a deity of someone who was only a human being, and trying to dress their faults up as virtues. I am not ashamed to say that discouragement plagues me as much as the next person, and reading Tuvia Bielski’s story gave me another reason to fight discouragement.

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