Dancing Men

I finally finished The Dark: New Ghost Stories, which is the book that I read for Readers Imbibing Peril‘s Peril The Third. I’ll write that review soon, but I want to do a separate post about the last story in the collection, Glen Hirshberg’s “Dancing Men.” Not only is it a terrific story — it was nominated for the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella in 2004 — but it also fits The Short Story Initiative‘s September theme: “Getting to know each other.”

Actually, I think Nancy just meant that we the participants should get to know each other, but since it fits, hey…

NewImageMarionette in Prague
Image: Wikipedia

In “Dancing Men”, Seth Gadeuski, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, is leading a group of American teenagers on a tour of Europe called The Legacy of the Holocaust. In Prague, he faints when he sees a Romani street vendor selling marionettes. In his foggy state, he says out loud: “I didn’t kill my grandfather.”

This experience leads him to recall the summer when he was nine years old, the summer that he learned the truth about his grandfather and his history.

Seth hadn’t been close to his grandfather; in fact he hadn’t been close to his own father, either, whom he refers to once as “Zombie-Dad,” because he is so distant. All three of the men in the family — grandfather, father, and Seth — are remote, distant people, who don’t seem to express, or maybe even feel, emotions towards others.

The summer he was nine, Seth’s father brings him to stay with his grandfather, in the desert outside of Albuquerque. His grandfather’s caretaker, a Navaho woman named Lucy, conducts an Enemy Way with Seth. The Enemy Way is a Navaho ceremony for warriors returning from battle. The ceremony is meant to exorcise the chindi, or evil ghosts, that plague a person. Chindi often arise from violence (they are the evil part of a person’s spirit, which cannot move on, as the good part can). I imagine that this is why there is a Way for those who return from war, lest they be haunted by the chindi of those they killed, or those who were killed around them.

That’s really all I know about the Enemy Way. I can’t speak to how accurate Hirshberg’s depiction is, but at any rate, I get the impression that Lucy only conducts it to humor Seth’s grandfather. It’s a precursor to the grandfather telling Seth his story.

I can’t say much more without giving away the plot, except this: Seth’s grandfather is a survivor of the Chelmno concentration camp in Poland. Over 150,000 people were killed in that camp: Jews, Romani, Czechs, and Soviet prisoners of war. There were only a handful of survivors; perhaps as few as two or three.

And this makes “Dancing Men” not only a ghost story, but a genuine horror story (the two are different). The horror, though, is not in this fictional narrative, but from history, in Seth’s grandfather’s recounting of his experience in the camp, including having to bury other murdered prisoners in mass graves. This is Seth’s grandfather’s personal Enemy Way, the ritual of recounting his story, first to his son, and now to his grandson.

“Why does Grandpa call me ‘Ruach’? I snapped. …

“Do you know what ‘ruach’ means?” he said.

I shook my head.

“It’s a Hebrew word. It means ghost.”

Hearing that was like being slammed to the ground. I couldn’t get my lungs to work.

My father went on. “Sometimes, that’s what it means. It depends what you use it with, you see? Sometimes, it means spirit, as in the spirit of God. Spirit of life. What God gave to his creations.” He stubbed his cigarette in the sand, and the orange light winked out like an eye blinking shut. “And sometimes, it just means wind.”

By my sides, I could feel my hands clutch sand as breath returned to my body. The sand felt cool, soft. “You don’t know Hebrew either,” I said.

“I made a point of knowing that.”

“Why?”

“Because that’s what he called me, too,” my father said…

The ghosts in this story are real; the supernatural aspects, only lightly touched upon. I really felt the way the the nine-year-old Seth struggled to understand his cold family, and the regret adult Seth feels at having grown into the same remote human being as his father. “Dancing Men” is a rueful meditation on the way the Holocaust has left its traces across multiple generations. It’s also a meditation on how the way we love, or don’t love, our children ripples on.

Recommended.

The story is also in Hirshberg’s collection The Two Sams: Ghost Stories, which I am going to have to find. Another worth looking for: Hirshberg’s first novel, The Snowman’s Children.


This review is part of Readers Imbibing Peril‘s Peril of the Short Story, and part of the The Short Story Initiative monthly event for September. A double-dip!

11 thoughts on “Dancing Men

  1. I went on a Glen Hirshberg search earlier this year after reading “The Muldoon” from People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction & Fantasy. Ended up acquiring and devouring The Two Sams and The Snowman’s Children. Both are very good, though the novel was different from what I was expecting.

    • From the description, it doesn’t look like The Snowman’s Children is ghosty or supernatural. Was that what you meant about it being different from what you expected?

      It looks intriguing, though I wonder if it will be difficult — in the sense of being difficult subject matter, what with child serial killers and all. I had a hard time making it through The End of Alice and Stephen King’s “Apt Pupil”. I’m kind of a softy…

      • I suppose I *was* still expecting some supernatural element from The Snowman’s Children, but I think I was also expecting more of a straight-up genre story instead of a more “literary” novel. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t as creepy and disquieting as Hirshberg’s short stories. The Snowman killings are very much in the background, used more to evoke the setting of the late 70s when the media really started to grab hold of child abduction stories.

        • Interesting… I hadn’t thought about it before, but now that I am, that’s a good way to describe “Dancing Men” as well. The supernatural is used more as a metaphor, than actually the point of the story. Will definitely have to pick more of him up.

  2. After the get-to-know post, anything goes. 🙂 I’m glad you introduced here Glen Hirshberg. It is my first time to hear about him. I went over to his site and put The Two Sams on my Amazon wishlist (my book budget is pretty tight lately). I really want to read The Dancing Men. I like how you summarized the story; I felt that the grandfather would have been better off a ghost himself than inflict a coldness that carried on in the male line of the family. I cannot blame him. No person is the same after a war. My own grandparents somehow came out okay because of their very large family and the good support system that goes with it. I guess the grandfather in this story is, sadly, not so lucky.

  3. Hi Nina,
    This sounds like a great story. I found the Nook version of “The Two Sams” on Barnesandnoble.com for only 2.99 and went ahead and purchased it. I look forward to reading him. I’ll recommend another story I “discovered” last year when my book club had its short story month. It’s “The Conjurer’s Notebook” by Alice Hoffman. Not a ghost story but similar only in that it dealt with post holocaust ‘suvivors’ – not necessarily of the camps but of that era.
    -Jay

  4. Wow, that sounds like a really intense story. And you are right, a ghost story and a holocaust story, with its own very real ghosts, are two very different things. I’m glad you linked to this on the RIP review site as I’ve never heard of the author and might have missed hearing about a very intriguing story.

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