Leora Freedman’s first YA novel revolves around two Jewish teens living in a Connecticut suburb in 1973. Zoe and her best friend Naomi spend their days smoking pot, cutting classes, and trying to get a rise out of Mrs. Lev, their Hebrew teacher. At home, Zoe finds inspiration reading about the life of Hannah Senesh, the Jewish heroine executed by a German firing squad after parachuting into Yugoslavia to liberate Hungarian Jews during the Second World War. Senesh’s determination and sense of purpose contrast starkly with the listlessness Zoe and Naomi feel about their own lives.
In class, Zoe accuses Mrs. Lev of hate mongering for her strident anti-Arab views. But beneath her public criticisms, Zoe begins to feel a powerful, confusing attraction to her prickly teacher, one she keeps well hidden from Naomi and her other friends. Given that Mrs. Lev is married with children, Zoe also knows there is little hope her affections will be returned.
Zoe has also been preoccupied by Naomi’s behaviour of late. Fighting a creeping depression, Naomi has increasingly started pushing the envelope with her drug use. When Naomi starts dropping hints about suicide, however, Zoe’s concern turns to alarm. Attempts are made to get Naomi help, but to no avail, and Zoe must live with the guilt of not being able to save her friend.
Freedman, who grew up in Connecticut and lives in Toronto, takes on difficult issues here, and respects her readers enough not to offer pat solutions. Zoe is a nuanced character whose inner contradictions and conflicts consistently ring true. The novel runs a bit long, but Freedman also creates space around her characters that allows them to unfurl.