The Convert by Deborah Baker
Published by Graywolf Press
One might think that a young Jewish girl growing up during WWII in New York would, if anything, feel a strong kinship to her Jewish roots. Logic seems to suggest that the intense suffering of one’s people might make one more determined than ever to hold onto faith and cultural identity. Such was not the case, however, with Margaret (Peggy) Marcus. From an early age, Peggy was obsessed with the idea of Arab peoples and Islam. For her, the creation of the nation of Israel was an equal injustice to the people of Palestine as anything the Jews had ever suffered, the repeated lauding of Zionism by those around her was endlessly disturbing to her and, in the end, caused her to renounce her religious and cultural heritage. Before long, Peggy turned to Islam and became Maryam Jameelah, moved to Pakistan, and began producing copious writings against the tyranny of materialism and lack of spiritualism in the West. It is this transformation that Baker attempts to address in The Convert: A Tale of Islam and Extremism.
I say that Baker attempts to address this transformation, because I question the effectiveness of her approach. The storytelling was very nonlinear – from Maryam’s trip to Pakistan, to the extensive history of the man who would serve as her guardian, back to her childhood, and then through her early years in Pakistan. It seemed that this flow may have followed Baker’s own discovery of Maryam’s story, but that is not completely obvious. If it was Baker’s plan for The Convert to have a feel similar to the discovery journey approach of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, she needed to insert herself farther into the story, and give the reader a better idea of her background and biases; if it was her plan to write a more objective tale, she needed to be much less in the story. Baker directs at Maryam what can only be described as a rant at the end of Chapter 8, a moment that seemed very much out of place with the rest of the book.
The Convert is the type of book that really requires the reader to have the full story on the author. At the very end, in Baker’s note on methodology, it becomes apparent that many of the letters presented in a straightforward manner throughout the book were actually edited, and even rewritten, events moved from one letter to another, by Baker, in an attempt to make her story flow more smoothly and make more sense. She does succeed in making roughly the middle third of the book, comprised primarily of Maryam’s letters, flow very nicely, but at what cost? Without any idea about Baker’s biases and motivation, this is very problematic, as the reader is left without any idea to what extent letters were changed and to what purpose. It is hard to know how far to trust Baker, especially in light of the aforementioned rant.
The idea behind The Convert is a fascinating one: what makes a young woman of privilege drastically change her life and travel to what would to her be a very foreign country and rail against her native land? Sadly, the execution just was not there.Book Club – discussion today.
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