Sometimes books that look as if they ought to be near to each other and like each other are poles apart. Recently, I received two review books from very different publishers. From the outside The Little Bride and The Lonely Tree are similar. They are both books about young Jewish girls who live in lands new to them, brought there by difficult circumstances and by religious do-gooders.
The Little Bride follows the short time before the marriage and the difficult time after it for Minna, a nineteenth century mail-order bride. She is going to America, where everything is better than Odessa—except that South Dakota is not the America she has heard of and her husband is stubborn and difficult and her life is inescapably impossible.
The Lonely Tree follows the path of Tonia, whose father fervently follows the kibbutz ideal in the 1930s when even breathing is difficult if one is Jewish. It takes Tonia’s life through until the 1950s where Tonia finds that hard compromises are sometimes the best way forward.
I found The Lonely Tree very hard to read. It was not the writing. This is purely personal. I am Australian and Jewish. Since my formative years I’ve known people who had tried the kibbutz life in its early stages, who would have known people like Tonia and her family. Some of these people adored it, some tried it and failed, and all of them had come to Australia and told our communities about the life, and the politics and especially about that period from the 1930s until the late 1940s. Every word of The Lonely Tree reminded me of these stories, of people I knew and some who I still know and how lucky we all felt to be Jewish and alive in the 1960s. It wasn’t the joy of the sixties we were celebrating: it was not being dead. This theme is the underlying one throughout The Lonely Tree, that some times are particularly hard, that some people are never safe, and that only sometimes does the wider world care.
I still find it a matter of wonder that a Jewish child in a country as safe and prosperous as Australia should grow up feeling as if the world grudged her life. The Lonely Tree reminds me why this was so—it’s easy to forget that the anti-Semitism in the 1930s and the 1940s was worse than other anti-Semitism by an impossible amount and that being Jewish meant needing an escape route prepared, at any time. Those who didn’t have escape routes usually died.
In Australia we had emotional escape routes: the worst things that happened to us were stones thrown and graves desecrated and names called. But we heard stories and we saw scars and we grew up with a generation of people our parents’ age who wore long sleeves to hide numbers and of whom we were instructed to never, ever ask questions about their childhood and youth.
The Lonely Tree is a breath of fresh air, because it tells all this clearly. This novel takes me back and reminds me under what a shocking pall many Jewish communities lived in the twentieth century and that these communities were the lucky ones, for they survived. We were always reminded that we were the luckiest of the lucky in Australia, for survival wasn’t even an issue. Name-calling and grave desecration are nothing. We all knew that.
This is why The Lonely Tree was intensely difficult for me to read: it reminded me of my childhood and knowing things about others that really, no child should know. In the 1970s, when people were calling Australia “the Lucky Country,” we knew that the luck ran far deeper for us than for others, for we know what Tonia’s family in The Lonely Tree discovered, that dead people are not mere numbers to those who knew them—they are parents and cousins and schoolmates—and that when they are dead, they are gone forever.
This isn’t all the book is about. The Lonely Tree is the story of a young girl’s life as she grows up in difficult times and discovers who she is as she weaves her way through those difficult times. It’s political and occasionally polemical, but it has a lot of heart.
How Tonia and the people she meets deal with the hatred, however, is the aspect that caught me, because it reminded me of going to primary school and wondering why other children didn’t understand these things. A few years later and Australia had a new wave of war refugees and they had their killing fields and their particular nightmares and their cousins who came out a century earlier were in the position I was in. War and hatred are evil cycles. They hurt far too many people.
The Little Bride is very different. It has many of the same themes: Jews on the land; fathers and husbands whose ideals and tunnel vision trump commonsense, every time; young girls who have to handle large things and who make them the size of their own life because the size of their own life is all they know.
It’s a beautiful novel. It was a novel I found myself arguing with the whole way through. I was very frustrated with Minna as a person. Why doesn’t she? Why won’t she? Why can’t she? Solomon has drawn a very full character that is in a position where she really has very few options in life and she helps us to see how Minna handles those very few options with grace and with charm and with much sorrow.
It’s not a happy book. It is, however, a very insightful one and the sorrow of the small life echoed in my mind for days after I had read it. It’s not the usual happiness-among-the-wheatfields. There is no indomitable family and not a great deal of pioneering spirit. These are religious Jews who don’t live in communities easily or share knowledge or understand how to create happiness. Each character fights for some personal space in their own way, but it’s a sad story. Too many inner demons. Too many burdens. Too much hurt. It’s beautiful, and it has a great sense of reality. Even the happy-ever-after has its share of desolation. Where The Lonely Tree falls into “This is history—know it” from time to time, The Little Bride never leaves the small, still, lonely world of the poor farm.
And those are my two books for today. My gift to you for the Jewish New Year. Have a good and sweet year and may your future be full of many wonderful books.