One Friday evening, the sun hung heavy and waiting to drain, syrupy, into the wheat fields. Men walked home carrying evidence of the day — a scythe, a leather satchel full of needle-nose tools, a roll of receipts, a bag of cabbages, an empty lunch box. At the door, children like me had scrubbed cheeks that looked like juicy, pluckable fruit. “Shabbat shalom,” we children said to our fathers. “Good Sabbath,” the fathers said.
When a mysterious stranger arrives, bearing news of death and destruction coming their way, the town must decide what to do. Flee? Where? Hide? Impossible. The stranger’s advice (along with the 11-year-old narrator’s): start over. The Jews have always been a people of new beginnings: after Eden, after the flood, after Sodom, after Babylon, after the diaspora. Start again. Tomorrow will be the very first day of a new universe in which the people of this town are the only people on earth, new-created. They will accept a small, circumscribed universe, with none of the glory and none of the exotic animals, in return for being kept safe.
There are several false starts. The townspeople have never tried to create a new world before, and it’s not as easy as it sounds. There are joys and misunderstandings and some genuine heartbreak, and of course the old traditions find their way back in, some of the time. But the heart of the effort is in the storytelling: the old stories are all forgotten by necessity, and the new stories can be whatever they desire. We build a temple to the Lord in the barn, for humility. This is a new constellation, for mercy and justice.
Up to this point, I was feeling quite restive and uneasy about this book. I couldn’t settle down to it. It’s prettily written, with a lot of the list-y sort of prose that you can see in the excerpt above, and a kind of lovely dreamy tone to it — very much a storytelling voice. There was enough going on in the village to keep me interested and reading, too. But I really could not get behind a book that was going to give the message that you can shape your reality by the story you tell about it, if that meant you could escape the Holocaust by explaining that you had created your own universe. I mean, the stories we tell are crucial in many ways but they do not actually fend off the Gestapo.
But then, more than halfway through, things change for the village, and for the now-adult narrator, in ways they had feared and anticipated but couldn’t precisely have predicted. Their practice in storytelling, and more vitally in starting over, becomes a shield and a weapon through some of the most terrifying and heartbreaking experiences of their lives: they are allowed to listen to their own stories, and to trust, sacrifice, float, weep, and be exiled accordingly.
I don’t always give contemporary authors very much credit, I admit. But I should have given my friend Laura, who recommended this book to me, all the credit she deserves. This book turned out to be strong, intelligent about engaging its faith and its history, well written, and dead-on about the way we rely on our self-created universe when everything has gone wrong. People sometimes say that a work of art looks at a horror like the Holocaust “unflinchingly.” Well, this book flinches — it weeps — and it should. But it doesn’t distort or deflect. I’m glad I read it.