A debut historical novel focuses on the tensions between Jews and Arabs coexisting in the Middle East.
In this generational epic, the Rabinowitz family lives during perilous times. Civil war erupts in Russia in 1917 and threatens the safety of the clan’s remote shtetl, Piatowka, nestled in the Pale of Settlement. As the violence intensifies and Jews increasingly become the preferred targets, Sha’ul and his new wife, Rachel, already pregnant, prepare to escape to Odessa and eventually Palestine, leaving the family elders behind. After years of living in hiding and on the run, they finally make it to Jerusalem but are forced to become farmers—an occupation for which they are sorely unprepared—and find the native Arab population intractably hostile to their presence. Meanwhile, Reese sensitively chronicles the opposing perspective: During the same period, the Fawza family in Palestine contends not only with Turkish soldiers prowling their lands for prey, but also what it sees as an aggressive invasion of Jewish newcomers fleeing from persecution. Sheik Ahmed grows to develop a “smoldering hatred of every Jew in the world,” and when he discovers the Rabinowitzes on his land, he angrily demands that they leave. Still, some opportunity for peace may reside in the communication between the sons from the two families—Aharon Rabinowitz and his Arab counterpart, Abu. The author ambitiously constructs a panoramic historical drama that stretches from 70 C.E. to the 1980s, concentrating on the unimaginable suffering of the Jews throughout the 20th century. Reese’s command of the relevant historical details is remarkable in both rigor and depth, especially considering the expanse of time his tale covers. In addition, his portrayal of the theological and political tensions that cleave the Middle East is impressively unencumbered by ideological or partisan baggage—he vividly captures the complex contours of a maddening landscape. But the author’s prose can be overwrought: “Rebbe Avarael looked at his son’s face, now growing” distinct as “the first glimmers of dawn painted Sha’ul’s features for the rabbi’s rheumy eyes to see better.”
An intelligently subtle work of historical fiction that examines the battle over Palestine, both edifying and dramatically captivating.