Few books are published for mainstream youth with Orthodox Jews as the main characters, and it is easy to understand why that is; to make the religion of the characters truly relevant, it needs to play a role within the story. The Last Words We Said by Leah Scheier demonstrates how Orthodox Judaism can be woven into a story that also deals with real life issues many teens face.
This book has many storylines, and religion plays a major role in each of them. The main character Eliana, or Ellie, is part of a trio of friends who befriend a boy new to their neighborhood. Eventually, Eliana and Danny, the new boy, begin dating. Much of the storyline revolves around their decision and struggles to be shomer, or to keep the rules of not touching before marriage.
The three female characters are meant to represent a spectrum of Orthodox Jewish practice. Rae (formerly Elisheva) has rebelled against religion and glories in pushing the envelope. Deenie, daughter of a Rabbi, is becoming overzealous in her religious observation. Eliana is meant to represent the middle of the road; she is still deeply religious, yet befriends a boy, begins dating him, and tries to maintain the rules of not touching.
The boy, Danny, has gone missing, and most people believe he is dead. Eliana still sees and talks to Danny, which is the main propeller of the story. To help her heal, Eliana’s therapist encourages her to write stories about Danny. It is through the stories that the events leading up to Eliana and Danny’s relationship, and Danny’s disappearance, are explained.
For most of the book, the reader is left wondering what happened the night Danny disappeared, why Rae has moved so completely away from religious observance, and what made Deeni cling to it even more. Yet, with many subtle clues dropped along the way, nothing is fully revealed until Ellie learns it all herself.
This book is begging for a larger discussion through a book club or book talk. This could be a way of broaching topics with teens that are often not openly discussed, such as sexuality, adultery, and driving while intoxicated, and may help them understand themselves better.
The Last Words We Said incorporates several difficult topics into the storyline of three teenage girls finding their own way to relate to (or abandon) their Orthodox Judaism. Each girl’s unique approach drives the story, and the author is not afraid to shy away from difficult topics.
Cindy Wiesel is an English teacher in Israel and leads a weekly book club for adults. She has edited teacher resource materials and served as a collection advisor to school libraries.