The Blood Lie

a novel by Shirley Reva Vernick

The Blood Lie

One autumn afternoon in 1928, a Christian girl disappeared near her home in a small upstate New York town. By chance, it was the day before Yom Kippur. Someone started a rumor – that the Jews had kidnapped the child, murdered her, and drained her blood to use in their holiday foods. People bought the lie. The police bought the lie. And they decided to take action.

That is the true story of the blood libel that happened in Massena, NY, just a few years before Hitler took power in Germany and began using the blood libel to help justify the oppression and ultimate slaughter of the Jewish people. The Blood Lie is a novel inspired by the events in Massena. Delving into the minds of both the perpetrators and the casualties, it’s a story about hate crimes and loving acts, despair and hope, loss and redemption.

The Blood Lie is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound.

About the Author

Shirley Reva Vernick is a journalist whose articles have appeared in national magazines, newspapers and university publications nationwide. One of the highlights of her work was editing a journal that was distributed to all physicians in Russia. Another zenith was developing an award-winning program to help doctors help their patients quit smoking.

Vernick is a native of Massena, NY, as was her father, whose family was directly victimized by the 1928 blood libel. She graduated from Cornell University, where she was awarded the university’s Fleischman Scholarship for Writing Achievement. She currently lives in Western Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters. In her free time, she helps run Storybee.org, a website where children and teens can listen to free audio recordings of stories being told by professional storytellers. The site is being used in schools, libraries, hospitals and homes around the world.


Study Guide for The Blood Lie

Discussion questions/topics

Even before the Massena blood libel, Jack Pool knew about anti-Semitism, and he’d experienced some of it firsthand. Why, then, do you think he is surprised about the blood accusation?

What does the Bentley School of Music symbolize to Jack?

Does Jack’s music become more or less vital to him during the blood libel? Why?

Why do you think the Pool family observes some Jewish customs but not others? For example, they keep strictly kosher and don't play sports on the Sabbath. Yet, Mr. Pool and Jack work on Saturdays.

Both Emaline and Jack blame themselves, at least in part, for Daisy’s disappearance. Do you think anyone is to blame? Who?

Why are the Massena Jews so frightened when they first hear about the blood accusation – as opposed to dismissing it as an ignorant reaching for straws?

Gus Poulos has more than one motive for accusing the Jews of a terrible crime. What are they? Which do you think is the strongest?

With no cell phones, no private phone lines, no email, no Facebook or Twitter, how did people communicate in 1928 Massena? How do you think the low-tech quality of communications affected the events in the story? How do you think such a rumor would play out in today’s world?

Emaline kicks George Lingstrom out of her house when he tells her about the blood accusation. Putting yourself in her shoes, do you think she’d have done this if it had been a different Jew besides Jack who’d been targeted?

Why is Trooper Brown so easily convinced that the blood accusation is credible? Think of his upbringing, his status in the town, and the gravity of the child-disappearance case.

What do you think would have happened if the trooper had discovered Jack at the temple the night of the rabbi’s interrogation? What if the gang of raiders had found him there?

Rabbi Abrams wants the Jewish congregation to help search for Daisy. Jack’s father thinks they should all stay at home and protect themselves. What do you think the best course of action would be?

The morning after Daisy’s disappearance, Stretch Spooner tells everyone at the diner about having just seen the rabbi “dancing all over” his yard with a chicken and then decapitating it. Since Stretch lives next to the rabbi, this is probably not the first time he has witnessed the shlug kapporus ritual. Why is Stretch remarking on it for the first time now?

Why does the rabbi want the Jews to forgive the perpetrators of the blood libel? Do you think this is the right thing to do? Why or why not?


Themes

Prejudice and oppression — Hatred of an entire group of people may be caused by such factors as fear, ignorance, ethnocentrism (the tendency to view one's own group as superior and other groups as inferior), and learned bigotry/stereotyping. Prejudicial attitudes may or may not translate into discriminatory behavior. In The Blood Lie, Gus Poulos is a long-time bigot against Jewish people but doesn’t act on those feelings until he has a financial motive.

Faith in the face of adversity — Jack’s faith is tested during the blood libel. He wonders why he has bothered being an observant Jew his whole life, if God seemingly cares so little about him. And yet, in his time of crisis, it is God Jack talks to, albeit angrily. We are left to wonder how the blood libel will affect Jack’s faith and observance in the long run.

Forgiveness — Rabbi Abrams asks his congregation to forgive those responsible for the blood libel. Jack, for one, cannot forgive them, and takes offense at being asked to do so. The universal dilemma of if and when to turn the other cheek is painfully illustrated.

Assimilation vs separateness — Jack’s family struggles over how to balance (a) their need/desire to assimilate into the broader Massena community, and (b) their commitment to maintaining Jewish customs and identity. Jack’s parents disagree about whether working on the Sabbath is acceptable, but they agree about other practices, such as keeping kosher. The blood accusation prompts Jack to resent the effort required to keep up his Jewish identity – since he sees that identity as the source of his current crisis.

Coming of age — Jack and Emaline are young adults dealing with formative issues: first love, forbidden love, faith, prejudice/oppression, loss, and trauma. How they perceive these issues is based partly on their stage of life. How they fare in dealing with these issues will help shape the kinds of adults they grow into.


Literary Elements & Devices

Characterization — Which character do you most closely identify with? Why?

Point of View — Which parts of the story are told from Jack’s point of view, and which are told from Emaline’s? What does this tell you about each character’s level of information about what is going on during the crisis?

Setting — The Blood Lie takes place in a small American town in the 1920s. How do you think the blood accusation would play out if it happened today where you live? Consider your locality’s norms, history, economic wellbeing, access to law enforcement, technology, etc.

Turning Points — A turning point is a place where the emotions or action of the story change in an important and often surprising way. (1) Early in the story, we learn that Emaline and George Lingstrom have a flirtatious relationship. Later, things change. What is the turning point in their relationship? (2) Do you think the closing kiss between Jack and Emaline is a turning point in their relationship, or rather something they will try to forget?

Symbolism — Symbols are objects that represent larger events, relationships, or ideas. What does music school symbolize to Jack? What does Jack’s circumcision symbolize to the other boys on his baseball team?


Activities

English literature/composition/creative writing

1. The story ends before we learn whether Jack gets accepted to the Bentley School of Music, whether he and Emaline maintain a romantic relationship, whether any apologies are made to the Jews, or whether the two mothers remain friends. Pick one or more of these unanswered subjects and write an expository scene.

2. Most of the scenes in the book are told from either Jack or Emaline’s point of view (even though the book is all in the third-person). Choose one scene and rewrite it from another character’s point of view. For example, the trooper’s POV when he questions Jack or the rabbi; Mrs. Pool’s POV when the rock is thrown through her living room window; cousin Lydie’s POV when the girls return to the Durham’s house that first evening and find the house full of worried visitors.

Social studies/U.S. history

1. Hate crimes are targeted against a person or group based on their race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity/national origin, or physical/mental disability. Assign students (or student groups) to a target category and ask them to research hate crimes against that group – with emphasis on history, statistics, legal/judicial actions, prominent cases, and any progress in lowering the incidence of such crimes. In class, compare and contrast the findings.

2. Have students research blood libels in both an historical and contemporary context. How did it arise and spread? How is it still being used?

3. Ask students to paint a verbal picture of the U.S. in 1928: Who was running for President? What was the country's immigration policy? What, if anything, was going on with civil rights? How was Prohibition working out?

4. Spin City: Ask half of the students to imagine that they are reporters for the Massena Observer newspaper in September 1928. Their editor has asked them to write a news article about the weekend's events in a way that won't offend anyone, or that will offend as few people as possible. Ask the other half of the class to imagine that they are a local Jew, writing a letter to the editor explaining how the weekend's events have affected him/her.

5. In 1928, many of the residents of Massena were immigrants.  Study immigration waves in U.S. history and the rise of xenophobia – the fear and/or hate of people from other countries. Discuss the irony of immigrants hating immigrants.