November 11, 2010

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword

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Written by: Kristin
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Hey gang! Today guest writer and manga blogger Daniella has reviewed Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword from Abrams Books. Daniella has written for us once before, during our Eisner 2010 highlights, when she wrote about the cooking manga Oishinbo. Please welcome her back for another piece, as she gives a unique perspective on this new title.

Title: Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword
Author: Barry Deutsch
Publisher: Abrams Books (Amulet Books)
Price: $15.95 (HC, 144 four-color pages)
Vintage: November 1, 2010

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch is part-fantasy about a girl who wants to fight dragons and mostly a lesson in ultra-Orthodox Jewish life. Mirka, the titular character, dreams about fighting dragons and all sorts of other monsters, but spends much of the book surrounded by her family, dealing with her task-master/stepmom, her marriage-obsessed older sister, and her troublesome little brother and step-sister (and that’s only PART of the family, we don’t get to see most of her siblings). One day she stumbles upon a strange house in the forest and a strange woman floating in the air pruning a tree. Excited, she brings her siblings back and accidentally invokes the ire of a talking pig, which begins her monster-fighting adventures and sword-acquiring.

I like Hereville overall, but as a Jew myself, I felt a little uncomfortable with a number of things.

First of all, the town of Hereville is essentially a shtetl, or a small town with a completely or near-completely Jewish population. Schtetls have more or less ceased to exist after World War II. Now, there are certainly large Jewish neighborhoods in cities or towns with a majority of Jews in them, but a town that is completely ultra-Orthodox…? Where it’s actually banned to read non-Jewish books and to have pigs? Maybe in Israel. (I don’t think Hereville is in Israel. Too much forest.) Ultra-Orthodox communities are still very insular, but I’ve never seen a community this cut off to the point where the kids don’t know what a pig looks like and they’ve never met a non-Jewish person before. If this had been a pre-Holocaust shtetl, I think I’d believe the isolation and homogenized local culture.

Second is the way Mirka behaves. Yes, she is capable of her own thoughts, will stand up to whatever torments her and kick its ass, but at the same time Mirka lets her sister bully her into submission so she won’t harm her family’s reputation and her sisters become unable to find good husbands. I realize that this is where my much more liberal Jewish beliefs clash with ultra-Orthodox ones, but it’s more than the fact that I think it’s dumb for an 11-year-old to think so seriously of marriage. Either way, Mirka is forced by those she’s closest with into keeping her adventures quiet.

For me, these things, especially the second one, prevented the fantasy aspects and the real world aspects from coming together. Despite the fact that Mirka’s siblings are frequently in scenes where fantasy aspects come into play, the witch, the talking pig, and the troll she fights might as well be all in Mirka’s head. No one ever sees her battle the pig or the troll (except the witch, who is not part of the Jewish community), and she doesn’t get acceptance from her family or her community for anything she does that’s related to the fantasy world. (In fact, when she mentions the strange woman in the woods, her stepmother yells at her and sends her to her room for the night.)

The “happy ending” we see is just her parents’ relief that their children have come home safe. After the punishments for sneaking out at night, Mirka goes back to every day life and her knitting lessons. It left me feeling like I was still waiting for the actual adventure story. This girl hadn’t gotten to live out her dreams, she just got the sword and went home to become a normal ultra-Orthodox girl on the path to marriage. What happened to all the dragon-slaying? Why doesn’t this girl get fulfilled? I rather disliked how the adventures were brushed aside by scenes that just illustrated what ultra-Orthodox Jewish life is like, and where Mirka was repeatedly rejected by the society she lived in. Half of the book was wasted on teaching readers Yiddish instead of Mirka’s hero’s journey.

Despite all this, I still like Hereville. Sure, it feels a little flawed to me, but I’m hoping that there’s a Hereville 2 so that it can resolve some of the issues of this book. Should Barry Deutsch do another, I’d really like to see Mirka battle a dragon in front of everyone in her town and be commended for it by the community. Or have Mirka come to terms with how her battles fit into her life as an ultra-Orthodox Jew, since she already seems pretty comfortable with the lifestyle she has. (Being an ultra-Orthodox Jew is really hard work. It takes a lot of effort, effort that a child may feel is unnecessary at her age.) I’d also like to see Deutsch’s artwork become more comfortable with the emotions of his cartoon-y people.

Really, this book has a lot of potential to get better, and it seems it’s positioned to be part of a series instead of a stand-alone book. I am eagerly awaiting the sequel.


Thanks Daniella!



  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by D. Orihuela-Gruber, Kristin Bomba. Kristin Bomba said: New #comic review @comicattack by @allaboutmanga: Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword […]

  2. […] As a favor to Kristin, who wrote a wonderful guest post for me while I was recovering from surgery, I wrote her a review of Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword for […]

  3. Ahavah

    . “(Being an ultra-Orthodox Jew is really hard work. It takes a lot of effort, effort that a child may feel is unnecessary at her age.) ”
    Wow. Thank you so much for writing that. As someone born and raised an OJ (and yes, I’m probably the only one who uses that abbreviation), I often feel that seular society doesn’t realize that being reigious is not some relaxing opiate, but rather a lifestyle that requires a lot of hard work. As for kids feeling the work is unnecessary, I dissagree. It is our honor, our morals, our code of law, and our essence. And there is reward for the effort (I’m talking about direct rewards, not esoterc spiritual ideas. Preparing for Shabbos is hard, but Shabbos is supposed to be a happy, relaxing day, as it is portrayed in Hereville. Preparng for Passover is much, much harder, but the Seders, Chol Hamoed trips, and afikomen presents make it all worth it, especially for kids).

    I read Hereville on the internet (as a webomic) quite a while ago. I was impressed by the author’s respect of Judaism and orthodox practices, but I also felt that the fantasy aspect wasn’t meshed in as well as it could have been, and that the ending was a bit antclimatic. It would be very interesting to read a sequel.

    For some reason, I can’t remember Mirka’s sisters or their shidduch (marriage match) issues at all, so I can’t really comment on that.

    As for the location: Upstate New York came to my mind while I was reading the story. Maybe a community like New Square, which is made up of almost entirely Chassidim. Upstate New York certainly lends itself to the backrounds of forrests as well as the speaking of Yiddish. There are actually quite a few places in the United States that have insular Ultra-Orthodox communities in which people speak Yiddish as well as English, nobody has a TV, the internet is strictly for business purposes only, etc. They’re not shtles or ghettos, but they are close-knit Orthodox Jewish communities.

  4. I’m just saying it MAY feel unnecessary. I went to a private Jewish school that didn’t focus on one sect of Judaism or another. There were ultra-Orthodox kids who really really hated getting ready for Shabbat. At the same time, there were people in the school becoming more religious and talking about how it’s such a difficult process that’s best done in baby steps. I’m just being all inclusive here. You might find it rewarding, but others may not. That’s why there’s such things as lapsed Jews, lapsed Catholics, etc. It’s especially easy to think that way when you’re a kid and it’s not really about the rewards you eventually get, but having this mountain of chores that you have to do or someone will get mad at you.

    One of Mirka’s sisters was especially worried about sidduch and whatnot. She basically put Mirka down for acting different, saying it would prevent her elder sisters from getting good matches, and Mirka let her get away with it. I understand that getting a good match is important for these girls, but Mirka is only 11. I think at that age, even in such a religious society, anyone would excuse her behavior as kids being kids. I won’t even get into how much of an affront it is to feminist sensibilities. But even if her religious leanings are strict, Mirka should still be able to get a good match with someone who really loves her sense of adventure. It just showed me how the comic was constricted by the society it was set in. If this had been outside of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, Mirka would have only been cast as weird and then accepted later on.

    As for the insulated society… it certainly could have been based on the Upstate New York communities you’re talking about, but I still feel like there doesn’t exist an entirely homogeneous, ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in the United States. Neighborhoods, large majorities of towns perhaps, but not an entire town like that.

  5. Ahavah

    True that most kids (and aduts, for that matter) dislike the chores. I’m just commenting on the idea that kids would think they are “unnecessary.” When you go to parochial school, everything is made to feel necessary, ne? 😛
    Which is why I thanked you for writing that being an Orthodox Jew is really hard work. Upholding the religious standards of any religion is incredibly hard and often thankless, and I feel that that point is usually missed by people who don’t understand religious observance.

    As for the community…I have a lot of Chassidish cousins. I know that there are yeshivos in the US that don’t even teach boys how to read English until they are middle school aged (and I’m glad that none of my cousins in the US were sent to such schools). I know that when I look at publications from Monroe or New Square, NY, the ads and majority of articles are in Yiddish. I have not spent much time in either town, but from an outsiders perspective, I imagine them to be very shtetl-like.

    The “Shidduch crises” drives me crazy whenever it is mentioned in any context and most 11-year-old girls from any community aren’t thinking that far ahead. I totally agree with you there.

    Hmmm…I’m very tempted to ask my 11-year-old Chassidish cousin to read the book and get her perspective on it. Actually, my aunt might have an interesting take on it. too. I wonder if there is a copy available at the Brooklyn Public Library….

  6. Sorry I took so long to reply, Ahavah! I totally lost track of this page and work became super-busy.

    I don’t know… Maybe it’s just because my school wasn’t focused on learning via a specific sect of Judaism and we had lots of non-Jewish teachers, but there wasn’t much that was ingrained into me as necessary. Of course, there’s only one way to do this thing or that, but overall it was left up to us. If you went home and you didn’t light Shabbat candles, no one was going to know. It was all up to us. I find that rather comforting because I didn’t like being forced to pray everyday and sit through countless ceremonies on holidays that didn’t feel real to me. It was nice to know that I didn’t have to go through all these motions just to be Jewish and that I could set my own level of religion.

    Anyway, still glad I could point out something that tends to get left out. Being very pious is very difficult.

    Either way, I’m getting the feeling that these communities are sizable, but still not homogeneous to the point that Hereville depicts. I live next to a large Chassidish community in LA, so there’s even an entire paper in Yiddish, but there’s still plenty of people like me who are not Chassidish or even Jewish living around here. I also happen to live next to a large gay community. It’s an interesting place. XD

    Admittedly it was a 14 year-old thinking of her 18 year-old sister’s shidduch who chastised Mirka (the 11 year-old), but I remain pretty convinced that none of the events that Mirka was being chastised for would have any real affect on the 18 year-old’s marriageability. Sure, it may have been the 14 year-old’s blown out of proportion worries, but including that scene just sucked and just made me dislike how the story was going.

    I hope your cousin gets to read Mirka. Maybe if it’s not at the library, you can find it online or at a bookstore somewhere.

  7. […] Comic Attack, reviewer Daniella Orihuela-Gruber (who usually blogs at All About Manga) wrote: I like Hereville […]

  8. A. Nuran

    Your objections to the book are legitimate but, I think, not completely justified.

    First, while the European shtetl is gone there are still examples of mostly Jewish towns. Kiryas Joel in New York State is just such a place. I wouldn’t want to use it as a model. It’s poor, uneducated, mostly depends on government welfare payments and so on. But it does exist.

    Second, Mirka’s behavior is credible. Family is is the center of a Charedi girl’s life. And with the insane demands of the shidduch system the fear that her sister’s marriage prospects could be ruined by Mirka’s behavior are absolutely realistic.

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