Bystanders by VALERIE VOLK

Who remembers the onlookers on the sidelines of big events? Who recalls bystanders such as the deposed queen Vashti, the blood-stained murdering grandmother Athaliah, the bluff soldier in King David’s army, or the desperately searching mother Phoebe? In Bystanders Valerie Volk has created fifteen absorbing characters on the edges of familiar Biblical events. With psychological insight and compassion, she gives a new perspective on stories we thought we knew. 

“These are compelling stories, probing deep into the rich tapestry of Bible narrative as minor characters tell their tales.”    Rev. Dr Lynn Arnold, AO

Bystanders includes an appendix of questions on each story, suitable for church small groups, home study discussion sessions, senior school students in Christian Studies, Religious Education, Language Arts, History, and classes in ethics or social/moral issues.


Read more reviews and collapse each review by clicking on the title.

REVIEW: Rev Dr Lynn Arnold, AO, 2015.

Valerie Volk takes us on a different journey of understanding, through the intensely plausible thoughts and words from minor Biblical characters ... This book deserves a place not just for enjoyable reading but also as an aid to better understanding of Scripture.

REVIEW: Jude Aquilina - writer, 2015.

Reading Bystanders was like attending a reunion of people I used to know when I was a child ... The characters in Volk’s collection of stories were present at pivotal times in history and are richly and skilfully evoked.

REVIEW: Kym Boxall SM, 2015.

Bystanders takes the reader briefly into the lives of individuals who make fleeting appearances in the Bible -  people who are on the side lines of the great dramas of the Bible, looking on as events swirl around the main characters ...  Volk’s prose is beautifully written and she exhibits a very clever ability to use a ‘stream of consciousness’ dialogue to tell a story.

REVIEW: Stephen Rudolph -  National Director Lutheran Education Australia, 2015.

The appendix contains a ready-made source of stimulating questions that venture into many of today’s issues such as domestic violence, family relationships, roles and rights of women, greed and exploitation.

REVIEW: Coral Hartley -  The Write Angle, August, 2015.

Review:   BYSTANDERS - Echoes of Stories Past

                        Historical fiction. Publ. Wakefield Press, June 2015

 A new release by Valerie Volk, launched in Adelaide last month, provides an intriguing blend of well-known biblical situations and a shot of ingenious refreshment. Volk has this incisive ability to take time-worn material and wring from it new angles and twists. Grimms’ Fairy Tales were energetically whipped into new life, as were Chaucer’s characters in Passion Play”. What next, we wondered? And here it is!

 Those thought-provoking books led almost naturally to the Holy Bible, with its rich resource of characters and unique relationships. Rosemary Dobson’s poem, The Bystander, may well have inspired Volk’s collection, for Dobson’s narrator was just that, not a principal in the action, but watching from the wings, as it were.

 In each of these fifteen finely-crafted stories, the roman-a-clef is a major Biblical figure, Isaac, Moses, King David, Vashti, et al, while the New Testament yields the likes of the Good Samaritan, Mary and Martha, and the dithering Pontius Pilate. Those who were close to the action offer their ‘take’ in each case, and in some cases may or may not have existed. Does it matter?  Their back-story unwinds with meaningful precision, insightfulness, and is no doubt the product of intense authorial research and study. Point of view is First Person throughout, and for the most part, past tense has been employed. The narrators are believable, and very individual in their sentiments and judgements.

 A short introduction to each chapter helps to pep up the jaded memories of those of us who cannot readily recall all the events in Biblical history.

 Attention to fine detail is just one of the commendable features of an engrossing and enlightening book. It deftly draws on the dramatic, the tragic, the heroic and sordid from the perspective of fifteen narrators. At least one bystander throws a splash of cynicism, like bitter vetch, into the mixture, when his blind son regains eyesight. The appendix contains a list of provocative questions that carry a recognizable similitude to modern life, the same issues affecting us all in this century. Dramatist Stanislavsky said it is not possible to entertain and educate at the same time, but Volk has put paid to that, with a most enjoyable collection of Bible-based stories.

REVIEW: Paula Vince -   Goodreads, July, 2015.

Bystanders: Echoes of Stories Past     Valerie Volk

Fifteen Bible stories are retold from the points of view of observers who didn't have pivotal roles. This shift makes the stories multi-faceted, showing them in a whole new light.
Some of the bystanders are close to people who did feature most strongly. Esau's wife, Basemath, quietly fumes about the stunt her husband's twin and their mother pulled on him. The mother of Elisha's servant, Gehazi, wonders if her son's attraction to material goods was partly her fault. The father of the former blind man doesn't feel completely willing to thank Jesus for his son's healing, since it brought a decrease in begging earnings and trouble with the authorities.

Other bystanders happened to be nearby for whatever reason, perhaps in their line of work. The soldier who delivered messages between David and Joab gives his opinion on the king's dealings with Uriah and Bathsheba. The son of the bandit who attacked the Good Samaritan lurks in the shadows, watching the aftermath of the mischief.

Revisiting action through the eyes of people we wouldn't expect packs a powerful punch. They sometimes highlight how crazy the ways of God can strike people, compared to human wisdom. Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, ponders what appears to be a suicide mission to move the Israelites out of Egypt, when the only reasonable response would seem to be, 'It's not going to happen.' The man who could have won Ruth's hand explains why he chose to waive his family rights and let Boaz make the move as kinsman redeemer instead. A servant in the household of Mary and Martha describes the general sense of disbelief when the respected Teacher turns out to be a simple, uneducated country yokel from Galilee with a rough rabble of followers, who twists the prophets' words until they make more sense than before, if possible.

The bystanders also give the stories a feeling of immediacy, evoking time and place so vividly. I found it worth jotting down a few quotes from the unusual perspectives.
Pontius Pilate's wife, who'd known him since childhood, explains how he became a man 'whose name will be remembered in ways that he'd flinch at.'

A man waiting in the crowd to stone the woman caught in adultery looks at Jesus and reflects, 'If he truly wants to be seen as a man of God, he needs to pick up a stone himself.'
My favourite perhaps, is the line ex-Persian queen Vashti says of Esther. 'She might have saved the Jews, but she didn't do much for women.' That was quite thought-provoking, and got me laughing. The discussion questions at the end are worded in such a way to stimulate deep thought, rather than simple answers, so I'd recommend the book for any group or person who wants to delve beneath the superficial.

REVIEW: Paul Nicholson - cargoART Magazine, July, 2015.

Bystanders: Echoes of Stories Past

Valerie Volk    Wakefield Press        $24.95

This is a most innovative book full of creative ideas about biblical stories which for the most part are well known. Valerie Volk’s purpose is to imagine what would be the reactions and responses by bystanders to the high drama going on around them.

The Old and New Testament are full of dramatic events. What would it be like to view these events from the sidelines as bystanders? This is the task that Volk sets out in Bystanders.

Take for example one of the most dramatic stories in the Old Testament; the story of the passion of King David for Bathsheba. David’s lust for her leads him to commit a terrible crime, namely arranging the death of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah in battle so that he can marry the now pregnant Bathsheba. Volk constructs an imaginary story of a fellow soldier who has to deliver a message to Joab, commander of David’s army that Uriah has to be isolated in battle and be killed in order that David can marry Bathsheba.

Volk also applies the same technique to stories in the New Testament. For example, the Parable of the Good Samaritan. What would be the reaction of an observer who sees the drama unfold?

Volk creates characters who are on the edges of Biblical events and imagines their reactions. The result is a fascinating account which brings fresh life to these stories. There is a helpful section at the end of the book where discussion questions are posed for individuals or groups. A highly creative piece of writing which vividly brings some old stories to new life.

REVIEW: Kerryn Goldsworthy  The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Canberra Times, 29 August, 2015.

Pick of the Week:  Short Reviews


In earlier books, Valerie Volk has used existing classics to spin off into stories of her own, including Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and the stories of the Brothers Grimm. This time her inspirational text is the Bible, and each story takes a minor character from a well-known tale and considers its events from that character's point of view. We hear from characters who shed new light on the stories of Abraham and Isaac, of Naomi and Ruth, of David and Bathsheba. The most successful and intriguing stories are those told by characters with lively personalities and unusual points of view: the laconic soldier who witnesses a murder, the passionate Vashti who misses her husband, and the brother-in-law of the woman taken in adultery, who finds to his bewilderment that he cannot bring himself to cast the first stone.

REVIEW: Alison Platt  War Cry, September, 2015.

Bystanders    Valerie Volk

In the Bible, characters such as Isaac, David and Bathsheba, the Good Samaritan, are all ‘extras’, who observe from afar, but in author Valerie Volk’s book they become the main characters.

And so these stories are given a new lease of life from a different perspective; here the characters have back stories which give insight into their observations and motives.

Volk writes in a narrative tone reminiscent of sitting round a table over a coffee. She captures inner thoughts and voices of people who were there at important biblical events. Primarily, Bystanders recognizes the humanity of people and events that became pivotal in the Bible.

The compassionate retelling of the stories of Queen Vashti, and why she refused to dance, and Martha’s servant defending her crusty, hardworking mistress, in particular, resonate. The reader comes away from the book with a greater understanding not only of the characters, but of the pressures of social expectations of the time.

REVIEW: Peter Pierce  Sydney Morning Herald; Canberra Times, September 18, 2015.


By Valerie Volk. Wakefield Press.  $24.99.

Following her engrossing verse novel, Passion Play, Valerie Volk has made an imaginative leap into a distant and fabled past, the trove of stories to be found in the Bible. The new book is Bystanders. Its subject is ''people like us watching major events unfold"; "bystanders emerge as people in their own right, with their own stories and psychological interest". The epigraph is Rosemary Dobson's poem The Bystander, which begins "I am the one who looks the other way,/In any painting you may see me stand/Rapt at the sky, a bird, an angel's wing". From this starting point, Volk's retelling of "echoes of stories past" confidently begins. Taking us back thousands of years, she quickens our interest in familiar tales offered from oblique and unexpected angles.

The story of the lost birthright of "the hairy man", Esau (from 1930BC and Genesis 25 and 26) is related from the enraged viewpoint of his wife, Basemath, daughter of Elon the Hittite. From the second book of Kings comes the story of Gehazi, the faithless servant of the prophet Elisha who for his treachery the Lord smites with leprosy. Volk tartly titles the story The Ambiguity of White. Moving into the New Testament – after such harrowing episodes as Sarah, wife of Abraham, watching as he takes away their son for sacrifice – Volk pictures a ruined Pilate after the Crucifixion, observed by his wife in their private garden. By now there have been vignettes of "the wandering preacher". Volk depicts Christ stopping the stoning of "the woman taken in adultery", then raising the corpse of Lazarus: "who is this man who tells us to open the grave?"

 A key stylistic problem that Volk must confront is to find an idiom for the speech and cast of mind behind it of people of such distant times. Her solution is to be on watch for anachronisms; to seek a neutral voice that does not too much impinge on her reconstruction of events. What people might have said whenever "then" was is imaginable, but in another sense inimitable. It is a triumph of Volk's Bystanders that she steadily and also daringly brings these old "echoes" back into the present, refiguring our understanding of stories that once were so familiar to many; it may shock and entrance those new to them.

Peter Pierce is a Canberra reviewer.

REVIEW: Katharine England -  Advertiser SAWeekend, Oct.31, 2015.

Well Read:  Books of the Week.

Bystanders,  by Valerie Volk

Adelaide poet Valerie Volk has personalized 15 characters on the edges of well-known bible stories and thus given us an often intriguing slant on the stories themselves.

 Most interesting and convincing to me are the longer, livelier and psychologically deeper accounts of New Testament characters: the stonemason brother-in-law who can’t loose his stone at the adulterous woman; the wife of broken, perpetually handwashing Pilate, or Phoebe, whose passing mention in Paul’s Letter to the Romans is expanded into a lively account of a first century mother and church worker.

Katharine England

REVIEW: Rama Gaind -  PSnews - online, November 3, 2015.


Bystanders: Echoes of Stories Past


By Valerie Volk, Wakefield Press, $24.95


 Award-winning Adelaide writer of poetry, verse novels and short fiction, Volk has produced an amazing collection of work that incorporates a remarkable concept.

Through the Bible that is a “treasure trove of characters at major happenings”, she has created 15 characters on the edge of ‘recognisable’ proceedings that are quite fascinating.

Ever wonder what it might have been like for the ones who knew these central characters and were there beside them as a wife, soldier, servant or a member of the crowd?

It’s these ‘bystanders’ who become apparent “as people in their own right, with their own stories and psychological interest: people touched and changed by what they see”.

We come to know such spectators as the deposed queen Vashti, the blood-stained murdering grandmother Athaliah, the bluff soldier in King David's army or the desperately searching mother Phoebe.

There are instances when less well-known stories are exposed; that an abundance of less significant sequence of events can go unnoticed. That’s because the bigger pictures concentrate on mainstream Biblical events. 

Some are there through inference, others are revealed.

This is an intricate tapestry of human beings and events. The spectators throw out the challenge so we can identify the human race and the significance of these lives.

Most of the issues raised have direct significance today, as much as they did to a bygone era.

Gain a new perception on stories that include such perennial subjects as domestic violence, roles and rights of women, exploitation, greed and family relationships.

REVIEW: Queensland launch article, The Lutheran,October, 2015.

No bystanding

The book is called Bystanders. But Convention delegates and visitors weren’t interested in merely watching from the shadows. They were keen to be fully involved in the book launch – especially when there was the added incentive of tasting the wares of Lutheran winemakers!

 Author, poet and educator Valerie Volk – also the delegate for Novar Gardens – was on hand to sign copies of her sixth book, which was launched during an evening social function at Convention.

 Launching the paperback, Lutheran Education Australia executive director Stephen Rudolph said the book would prove to be a valuable resource for study groups and highly recommended it to delegates.

Read more about Bystanders:


REVIEW: Linda Macqueen, The Lutheran, December, 2015, p. 20

New boots for well-trodden tales

 It’s not often that you see bibles in a retailer’s window in the heart of an Australian city. Yet this is what Dymocks on Adelaide’s busy Rundle Mall did earlier this year, to promote Valerie Volk’s latest book, Bystanders.

 Trevor Klein, sales manager of Wakefield Press, who published Bystanders, Valerie’s sixth book, said it looks at familiar biblical stories from a different perspective, and that’s the appeal.

 ‘This is not a hyper-religious book,’ he said, implying this is why Wakefield could safely take it on.

  ‘It’s a gentle introduction to Old and New Testament stories; it helps people to understand the Bible by bringing them into direct contact with stories. But it also takes readers who already know the stories to places they’ve never been before.

 ‘Valerie’s interpretation of each story from a bystander’s perspective is fantastic,’ the publisher said. ‘The book is beautifully written; it’s up there with her best.’

 Bystanders was officially launched on 1 October, at General Convention of Synod, where Valerie was the delegate for her congregation, Novar Gardens, Adelaide. Executive director of Lutheran Education Australia, Stephen Rudolph, who did the honours at the launch, says the book would be ‘entirely suitable for mid- and upper-secondary students, but also (would be) very appealing and engaging to the wider community,’ as it urges readers ‘to think further and go deeper.’

 Noting that the appendix contains questions relating to each chapter, he says ‘Bystanders is a ready-made resource’ for examination of issues such as domestic violence, family relationships, and roles of women.

 Valerie hopes the book will be used as a teaching resource in Lutheran and other schools, in small-group studies in congregations, and for private reading and reflection.

 Bystanders is available from Wakefield Press or directly from Valerie at


 Linda Macqueen


REVIEW: Colin Ames, Together, March, 2016, p. 6


The Unseen Witness


 Review of Bystanders by Colin Ames

 Valerie Volk’s latest book, Bystanders, breathes new life into familiar Bible stories and brings ancient people and events into focus as sharp as if they were happening in front of us from a vantage point in the new Adelaide Oval, or as close as the jostling and noise at Adelaide’s Friday night Central Market.

 Is this what Valerie intended when she wrote the book?

 “I’ve always been fascinated by the people of the Bible, even the ‘little people’, the bystanders,” says Valerie. “I guess I wanted to communicate this interest and get readers to look at Biblical events with new eyes – a way of re-engaging us all with everything the Bible offers. There’s so much relevance to today’s world, as well as to our personal lives; it’s not a book about old times.”

 Admirable ideals for the book, but how do they match up with the experiences and reactions of its readers?

 Since its publication in 2015 by Wakefield Press, the Young at Heart home group at Immanuel Lutheran Church (ILC), Novar Gardens, where Valerie is a member, has been ‘road-testing’ Bystanders for nine months as an alternative to the conventional Bible studies the group has used for over ten years. I spoke with some members of the group after their February meeting.

 Barbara and Brian Kroehn found that Bystanders as a resource for the small group studies has been invaluable. It portrays even the humblest of Bible characters as worthy of consideration, with the effect of drawing reactions from participants even more than relying solely on Bible text.

 “We always read the relevant Bible passages as the foundation for each story. Most recently we dissected the parable of the Good Samaritan, delving into every aspect of what happened, even considering what could have been in the minds of the robbers.”

Shirley Golding considered it an ‘intriguing’ book which “provides readers with different perspectives on the Biblical narratives yet at the same time they almost feel part of the events that are unfolding. No longer are we sure that what should be a straightforward reaction or belief is necessarily the case. We look deeper into what might be very different reasons for the actions taken by the people in the story. By doing so we examine our own attitudes and often find we have to justify them – or perhaps make some changes.”

Kathy and Allan Thompson thought the studies valuable “because they encourage us to read the Bible passage related to the story and then discuss and understand the context from the viewpoint of the particular bystander. There is rarely a dull moment during our study time together, with everyone contributing to a lively and interesting discussion.”

 Ronda Ross said, “I have been attending group Bible study for about 16 years, and this is the best study book I have used. It gives me an insight into what these humble bystanders may have been feeling, seeing, marvelling at or experiencing such as profound fear or grief, as they quietly observed Biblical events as they evolved.”

 Jennifer Hand has been the discussion leader for the Bystanders study and so has ‘dissected’ the book more closely than most. She said, “As a book of stories it is a ‘jolly good read’ but does not end there. After reading the Bible stories relevant to each story, I was able to re-acquaint myself with the place of the bystanders in these narratives, and found people to whom I had previously given little thought, for example the charioteer who drove the Ethiopian official who was baptised on his journey after hearing Philip explain the Scriptures to him. Did the charioteer hear enough of what Philip said to make him think of his own future? These thoughts led me to a new understanding of these passages, by looking at them from the sidelines.”

 “Members have found how relevant these biblical stories are. Issues like hatred, bigotry, domestic violence, jealousy and injustice are still here. The diversity of stories led us to look at ones not often studied, such as Esther and Ruth.”

 She added, “If you have Bystanders, use the discussion notes, either in a group or for personal study. I think you will find them as worthwhile as we have.”

 The experience of the ILC group of around 20 members shows that Bystanders can lead to lively Bible-based discussions, and could be a valuable resource to revitalise congregation study groups.

 And as one member said as our interviews ended, “I’d like to see senior classes in our schools tackle the discussion questions in this book. It may help teenagers see the Bible is more relevant for today’s lifestyles than they had realised.”

Bystanders is available from Australian Church Resources, Koorong and Dymock’s Bookshops, or the author’s website 

  Colin Ames


REVIEW: Antonia Hildebrand - Polestar Writers' Journal #30, May, 2016.

Bystanders   Valerie Volk    Wakefield Press

Reviewer: Antonia Hildebrand

In his famous poem, Musee des Beaux Arts, W.H.Auden wrote, ‘About suffering they were never wrong, the old masters ...’ and he goes on to add that suffering,

 ... takes place

            While someone else is eating or opening a window or just

            walking dully along;

Valerie Volk has written a book about the people Auden is describing. Naturally, it is called Bystanders and, interestingly, it is set in the Bible. These are ‘minor’ characters who never played a starring role in the Bible: Queen Vashti or the ‘murdering grandmother’, Athaliah, a soldier in King David’s army and Phoebe, a searching mother. Fifteen characters pulled from the sidelines and given their time in the spotlight. Volk displays her usual psychological insight and talent for the small detail.

The appendix at the back of the book sets out topics for discussion and deals with many current issues such as domestic violence, family relationships and the role of women in society. In A Father Speaks, Jesus cures a blind man, blind from birth and always cared for by his father. When the son returns, no longer blind, the father has mixed feelings, to say the least. ‘Am I supposed to thank him for this act?’ he asks. ‘We were happy as we were.’  He is clearly suspicious of Jesus. ‘Messiahs are always good for business,’ he sneers. Worst of all his son joins up with Jesus and decides to leave with him. His father is left with only bitterness. ‘He cured our son but does he really think I’m going to thank him for it?’  Auden wrote in Musee des Beaux Arts:

              when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

            For the miraculous birth, there must always be

            Children who not specially want it to happen, skating

            On a pond at the edge of the wood:

But here the roles are reversed. The father is the bystander and his child is the reverent and passionate one.

In You just can’t tell, there is a detailed, eyewitness report on the Good Samaritan. A young boy sees the traveler beaten, stripped and robbed and left for dead. Then he sees the Samaritan (‘You know how they feel about Jews’) arrive on his donkey, wash and bind up the traveller’s wounds and put him on his donkey. To the boy this proves that, ‘You just can’t be sure about anything.’ Believer or non-believer, all fifteen bystanders make for fascinating and original reading.  The Man of Stoneswas the most moving of all for me, because it deals with an ancient society’s treatment of women who have committed adultery and defied its patriarchal rules. Many of the issues it describes have not been resolved to this day.

Antonia Hildebrand


REVIEW: Pat Crudden  Tamba  59   December, 2016.

Bystanders: Echoes of Stories Past by Valerie Volk, Wakefield Press, Mile End, South Australia 2015

 My first reaction when asked to review this book, described by one reader as compelling stories probing the rich tapestry of biblical narrative, was, “Surely not another book about the Bible”. Once I started reading, however, I responded very positively to the methodology of the approach favoured by the author, which is to give a bystander’s view of each one of the fifteen biblical stories which she recalls. In each case the bystander is someone who was or could have been a participator in the story. The best way I can think of describing how this works is to take two stories, one from the Old Testament and one from the New. The bystander chosen for the Old Testament story is a real person but in the New Testament story is a person who, in Valerie Volk’s view, could well have been there.  The first story is that told by the Book of Esther. Possibly the most difficult book in the whole Bible, this book describes events in the Persian Empire when the Hebrews were exiled there some 500 years BCE. It does so without any reference to God or religion but with graphic descriptions of violence by both the Persians and the Hebrews of the kind being experienced in the same territories today. The bystander in this case is Vashti who was the chief wife in the harem of King Xerxes referred to in the Hebrew text as Ahasuerus. Vashti was highly conscious of her status as a descendent of a long line of Babylonian Kings. After not unusual days of eating and drinking with dignitaries Ahasuerus sent for Queen Vashti to come wearing her crown and display her beauty to his guests. Her refusal to do this was taken by the drunken guests to be an insult to the King so she was deposed and the search for a successor began.

After all the women with aspirations to become the new queen had displayed their beauty a very attractive young Hebrew named Esther was chosen as the new queen. We then follow her remarkable story through the judgemental eyes of the deposed queen. At the time Esther joined the royal household people who had influence with Ahasuerus were planning the genocide of the many thousands of Hebrews living in exile throughout the Persian Empire. Though seemingly naïve, the young Queen, whose Hebrew identity was not known to the royal court, turned out to be an astute low key defender of her people who not only saved them from slaughter but also ensured the slaughter of the plotters and their numerous collaborators throughout the empire. Valerie Volk’s view of Vashti’s “insider” view of these events humanizes them with engaging insight. I particularly liked her perspective of Esther, “She can never make him happy as I did, that meek little Jewish girl. Beautiful she may be, the little Esther. But my equal she will never be.”

The New Testament story I’ve chosen is the parable of the Good Samaritan. In devising this parable Jesus would have been aware that the road from Jericho to Jerusalem was hazardous and ambush prone. Valerie Volk approaches the parable from the perspective of the ambushers who robbed and battered a passing traveler after lying in wait until a suitable victim appeared. They made off with the proceeds of their robbery leaving a young confrere to wait and see what subsequently developed. He then becomes the bystander who sees the priest and the levite, both pillars of the faith of Israel, pass by the distressed man.  Then a Samaritan, a man whom they would have despised, comes along, sees the distressed man, tends to his wounds with real care, puts him on his donkey and takes him away to a safe place. The young man is observing all of this and reflecting on it with limited understanding but concern for the man whom his confreres have violated. He reaches a modest but insightful conclusion, “Maybe you can’t take everything for granted. Could be worth thinking about.”

That seems to be a good note on which to end this review of an intriguing book in which the author succeeds in presenting her chosen fifteen biblical stories in a way that gives the reader something worthwhile to think about. It makes for very enjoyable reading.

Pat Crudden

REVIEW: Ian Keast  Studio #140, May, 2015

Bystanders: Echoes of Stories Past by Valerie Volk, Wakefield Press, Mile End, South Australia 2015

Valerie Volk is a writer familiar to Studio readers. She is an Adelaide-based poet, as well as writing verse novels and short fiction. It is her prose writing on display in Bystanders, a collection of 15 stories of characters from well-known Biblical events: the sacrifice of Isaac; David and Bathsheba; the Good Samaritan; the raising of Lazarus; Pontius Pilate, to mention some of them. The interest in Bystanders is that each storycomes from the unique perspective of a 'bystander, "the one who looks the other way", (from Rosemary Dobson's poem, "The Bystander," included at the beginning.)  Herein is the book's format: familiar stories retold from a different angle, offering insights and reflection.

Take the first story, "Setting out", as an example. We are in the shoes of a 'bystander', - Sarah - watching a major event - Abraham taking their son, Isaac, away for sacrifice - (Genesis 22), and witnessing her reactions and emotions to this. They are honest. "No mother will yield her son to God, the way a father will," (p.7); despairing, with agony of soul, "I would have fought God's word on this." (p.7) The pattern includes an internal structure in the story - in this case the 'laughter' motif of Sarah. At first her laughter is that of mocking the news that, although barren, they will have a son. Is this her 'sin', she wonders, as she questions God? The other laughter is the opposite - that of joy on Isaac's birth. The stark contrast involved in this motif gives rise to the poignancy of Sarah as mother and as a faithful, righteous believer, as she questions, in the manner of some of the Psalms and the prophets, the ways of God. "How long, O Lord, must I call for help?" Sarah is taking us to the heart of profound mystery: as William Cowper expressed it, "God moves in a mysterious way; His wonders to perform."  We are drawn in to the drama, made personal and vivid by the writer's skill in portraying, with empathy, this 'bystander.' And here is the great merit of "Setting out" - a narrative well-told, from a fresh angle of perception, leading the reader to reflect anew on the familiar. (There are also discussion questions to assist in this at the end of the book.)

As with the first story, so with the other 14: narratives which embody spiritual insights. The writer's task is complete in this deeply satisfying book. It is appropriate then, to quote from her poem "Epilogue", (which along with Rosemary Dobson's poem mentioned earlier, provides the poetic bookend of the collection).

                       ... These were forgotten people.

                       The ones on sidelines,

                       often overlooked,

                       peripheral to big events.

                       So are we all. ...

                       But also in the spotlight

                       of a main event.

Ian Keast

REVIEW: Marc Jeffrey  Literati, November, 2017


Valerie Volk - Bystanders


Wakefield Press, 2015


Welcome to stories set in ancient kingdoms such as Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt and Israel. Welcome to stories that may seem familiar, but which you have not seen before, because a story through another’s eyes is another story.


The bystander, as the author describes, is one with the small story; one on the sidelines.  Those familiar with the Bible would know stories delivered in a roughly chronological order from a mainly male perspective which show God in action bringing about justice on the earth.


Valerie Volk in Bystanders mirrors this, except that the point of view is not the biblical ‘hero’ but a bystander, albeit one who is emotionally invested in the outcome. For instance, Abraham’s call to sacrifice his only son is delivered from his wife, Sarah’s, point of view. We are immersed in Sarah’s struggle and inadequacies as she sees the only thing that’s made it worth it being taken away from her, and that in her old age. In another story, we see a king — David — kill an innocent man because the king is sleeping with that man’s wife. The point of view is from a soldier on the front line of a battle-zone, a colleague of the one who has been strategically slaughtered. He struggles with both the unjust outcome and the political explanation from the king.


Volk has also included notes in the back of the book to fuel further discussion.  Once again, Volk, the author of Even Grimmer Tales and Passion Play, shakes up our comfortable acquiescence with that which we think we know well. Bystanders is an engaging selection of stories which exceeds expectations.


Marc Jeffrey

REVIEW: Vivian Garner  Literati, November, 2017

Bystanders    Valerie Volk, Wakefield Press, Adelaide in 2015.   163 pages


 This is a collection of short stories, suitable for readers familiar with the Bible or who have only a passing knowledge and are simply curious. They are neither rewrites or simple expansions. They bring a different point of view. Individuals and their perceptions in biblical stories are often sparse in such detail. The author fleshes out personalities and describes circumstances by the comments of previously unheralded bystanders to the main action.             These are first person stories. Valerie admits that the dramatic monologue was one of her first loves and this shows in her adroit handling of the characters as they tell these traditional stories from their different points of view.


            The female characters especially are compelling and varied. Athaliah (Blood Will Have Blood), queen and a follower of the pagan god, Ba’al, wields power without mercy. The narrator, her step-daughter, married to a priest of Yahweh, is not overtly violent but when she understands that Athalia is to be executed she says, “ I cannot say otherwise…  blood will have blood.’  


            Other women fit more easily into stereotypes of females using their feminine wiles and it is the other women who see what they are up to. Rebecca’s trickery (The Hairy Man) is understood and resented by Esau’s wife. Naomi’s orchestrating of the betrothal of Ruth (The Foreigner) is recognized by the village women. It is their gossip that informs the male narrator, naturally enough, through his wife.


            Vashti (Vashti) is a complex character, used to wielding influence through her husband but with a strong sense of her own worth and dignity. Her denouncement of his demand that she should display herself to his drunken guests echoes contemporary feminist rejection of the female as property. In this, it is a very modern story.


            There are other such echoes and the Discussion Notes on The Man of Stones draws attention to a modern incident in Pakistan where the same brutal events still happen. While they have a historical setting, these very human stories acquire a universal and contemporary significance.


            This is Valerie Volk’s sixth book. She has published both poetry and prose as well as award winning short stories. As an educator she has taught English at a senior level, participated in education as an examiner, facilitated programs in south-east Asia as a director for the Future Problem Solving Program. This experience comes together in this book which includes Discussion notes and questions. She says “Most of the issues raised here have direct relevance to today’s world, not only of the period in which they are set.’


 Vivian Garner

REVIEW: Catch Tilly  Goodreads, January, 2018

What about me?

It’s a cry that resonates with us all as we see the world through our own perspective. History, even biblical history, tends to focus on the important people and it can be difficult to imagine ourselves into the story.  In Bystanders Valerie Volk gives us fifteen different ways in to well-known tales, unlocking stories we thought we knew.


It’s an idea that would be easy to do badly but Volk doesn’t fall into the trap of using people only as mouthpieces for the biblical narrative. No, all of her characters, from Sarah, convinced that the sacrifice of her son is due to her own sins, to the charioteer, lost in his memories, are concerned primarily with their own lives and this gives the stories a reality and power that is often missing in theological narrative.


The narrators range from Vashti the queen to a bandit’s apprentice, from characters as central as Sarah to people as peripheral as a prophet’s assistant’s mother and this variety not only gives us a look across the whole biblical narrative but ensures that everyone will find some characters they can relate too.


My personal favourites are Vashti, whose independence comes across so clearly, Sarah, whose guilt and tendency to believe it must be somehow her fault is so easy to recognise but I believe the most powerful story may well be that of the man prepared to stone the woman caught in adultery, with its honest portrayal of a man caught in his own violence. But amongst the fifteen stories everyone will find a different favourite and that is another of the books strengths.


Finally, though the stories stand alone, Volk has included as excellent appendix for use by study groups and the book itself is a highly recommended bible-study tool.  But unlike most bible study books this is one that I would recommend as highly to my secular friends as my religious ones.


An excellent book and a highly enjoyable read.           













Bystanders Extracts


Sarah    (the sacrifice of Isaac)

They are setting out, and all I can do is watch them with a breaking heart.  How simple it sounds – a breaking heart. How can anyone but a mother know that wrench of anguish, that overwhelming desolation, that wild longing as you watch your son go off to die?  Take me instead, I cry.  He is the innocent one. If this is the Almighty's punishment, let me suffer – but do not take him.  A young boy, innocent, unknowing. He skips beside his father. His heart is light. He does not know.



The Foreigner    (Ruth)

Moabites! Well, we all know what they're like. I wouldn't trust a Moabite with anything of mine. Steer clear, I always say. Stay away from foreigners. Foreigners are trouble!



Before departure   (Moses)

It was a plan born of desperation, but I marvel at her cleverness. I picture her  - the prayers she would have woven into that basket of reeds, the urgent care with which she daubed the tar that made it waterproof  - for what use to have saved her son from drowning at Egyptian hands only to send him to a watery grave herself?  She must have felt such anguish as she closed the basket lid upon your sleeping face, and placed it carefully in the reedy clumps along the edges of the Nile.

What risks she took! For what if she'd been wrong? If Pharaoh's daughter had not followed custom, and come to bathe that day? Or if they'd overlooked the basket, and the child had not been found?  Or even if she had looked on him, and stayed unmoved at the sight of the crying infant?



Orders are orders!     (David and Bathsheba)

Still, that's not to say there's not some truth behind the rumours. Soldiers talk, you know. And so do palace girls. They hear things, and it doesn't take a prophet to see what's going on. Soldiers have a way of getting to know the palace girls, if you take my meaning, and then you get the stories with all the details in. Still, there's some you wouldn't talk about. So if I tell you this one, you've got to keep your mouth shut. As I have. Well, up to now. There's a little Shumenite girl, a pretty little thing, and willing, if you understand me. It's from her I know so much. 



The Man of Stones   (the woman accused of adultery)

Stone's a funny thing, you know. It's not lifeless, the way they say. Turned to stone! Not a good way to put it at all, not when you're trying to say that something's gone dead on you. Stone's not dead. Stone can bring death  -  yes, that's true.  Wasn't that what we were all there for? And I couldn't help but shiver as I looked at the woman, even though the sun was already high in the sky and the heat baking down onto the stones in the Temple forecourt.



A father speaks  (healing of the blind man)

There's been a lot of sense in what the Teacher says. He's smart, you know, for all he comes from Galilee. No wonder that the chief priests hate him, and all those so-called men of God. They're men of learning; all their lives spent studying. And here he comes, a simple country man, a gang of followers with him of a sort they wouldn't want to know, fishermen and rabble. What happens? The people flock to hear him everywhere he goes. And worst of all, he teaches them as if he's got a right. He tells them things as if he knows. He takes the prophets' words and twists them till it seems as if they make more sense. More sense than ever I thought before, in any case.