The Song of Hannah is the story of the prophet Samuel, told from his mother Hannah’s point of view. Hannah and her best friend Pninah end up marrying the same man and vying for his love and attention throughout their adult lives. The blessed Pninah is fruitful, having many children with their husband Elkanah, while Hannah remains barren for years. Desperate for a child, Hannah prays to God and vows that she will give her firstborn son to Him to be raised in the church if only He will give her and Elkanah a child. Not long after her promise is made, she learns she is pregnant and gives birth to a son, who she names Samuel and brings to be raised by the priests when he is only two years old. Samuel is an important figure in the Bible, as is his mother, but Etzioni-Halevy tells their story like you’ve never heard it before.
Last year, I read and loved another of Etzioni-Halevy’s books, The Triumph of Deborah [my review] and I’d been meaning to read the other two books in this series ever since. This novel was just as good as my first experience with this author’s work, and I’m very happy that I made the decision to continue with her books.
While the book’s title focuses on Hannah, and the book’s description focuses more on the prophet Samuel, this story is as much Pninah’s story as it is Hannah’s. Pninah married Elkanah first, after all, and she never dreamed, in her worst nightmares, that her husband would also marry her best friend. In those days, polygamy was accepted but, at least according to the story, it wasn’t too common. So not only did Pninah have to learn to get along with her husband (whom she didn’t know all that well), move away from her family and all she’d ever known, learn how to be a mom, but she also had to compete with her best friend for her husband’s attention! While I felt for both women in the story, Pninah was definitely the more sympathetic character. Even when she made some choices I wasn’t fond of, I still found her to be a character I could really get on board with.
I liked Hannah too, don’t get me wrong. She didn’t have the greatest situation either – she also had to compete with her best friend for her husband’s love, she was the cause of losing the women’s friendship, and she was unable to have children in a time period when that signified something disastrously wrong about a woman. So, yes, both women had it really hard, and the fact that they had to deal with all of these barriers to their own happiness just goes to show how difficult life really was for women years ago.
The story is told in alternating chapters, allowing the reader to hear from both women, and I really liked this setup. It gave me a chance to understand both of their perspectives, and it created two very sympathetic characters who were both put in undesirable situations but were working to make the best of it. One thing I wish could have been a bit better is defining the voices of both Hannah and Pninah. I was unable to tell which woman was which simply from their voices, I had to go on context and other things (such as chapter headings) to tell me who was narrating. In a story with two different narrators, it’s very important for the reader to easily distinguish between the two, and I had a difficult time with that. However, I still liked the format of hearing from both women because otherwise I would have come off liking one and disliking the other, and as it is now they are both strong and powerful women, just trying to get by in an oppressive world.
If you like historical fiction, especially Biblical fiction, give Etzioni-Halevy’s books a try. There is one more that she’s written that I still have to read, The Garden of Ruth, and I’m hoping it’s as good as the other two. If so, it’s sure to be a winner in my book.