The nightly transformations begin on Hannah’s 17th birthday. First, she awakens in the bedroom of her family’s Boston apartment with the eyes of a snake. The next morning, she has a wolf’s teeth. Six weeks after Hannah’s mother leaves in search of a cure, an envelope arrives in the mail. It contains an obituary for Jitka Eggers, the maternal grandmother Hannah has never met.
Hannah and her brother, Gabe, are desperate to find their mother and get some answers to what’s happening to Hannah. They travel to Jitka’s village in upstate New York, where the large Jewish family they never knew they had welcomes them into shiva, a Jewish period of mourning.
As Hannah, Gabe and their new friend Ari keep digging, they stumble onto family secrets; meet a folk healer called an opshprekherke; discover a golem and a vengeful, demonic sheyd; and find that, like the present and the past, the real and the fantastical aren’t as far apart as they might seem.
Author Rebecca Podos packs a lot into From Dust, a Flame, including lovingly detailed descriptions of traditional Jewish practices, tales of creatures from Jewish mysticism and depictions of life in Prague during the Nazi invasion. Its narrative encompasses two time periods plus assorted letters, dreams and folktales—and references to everything from the legends of King Solomon to Disney’s The Little Mermaid.
Throughout the novel, Podos explores themes typical of YA literature, including self-image and self-discovery, as well as more mature questions, such as when to protect children and when to let them go. A mystery component encourages readers to question their initial assumptions, and a first romance found when least expected adds queer sexuality to the range of experiences represented.
From Dust, a Flame sits comfortably beside other works of Jewish American YA literature, both classical and recent. As in Jane Yolen’s 1988 novel, The Devil’s Arithmetic, Holocaust-era visions inform a present-day teen’s circumstances, and as in Gavriel Savit’s The Way Back, published in 2020, a host of magical creatures from Jewish mythology intervene in our world and influence the destinies of young adults.
At its core, From Dust, a Flame is a moving story about the enduring power of telling stories.