In 1930, before the founding of the state of Israel, Ze’ev Tavori settles in a new cooperative agricultural moshav. His parents send him an ox, a blanket, a gun, and a wife to start his new life, which his granddaughter Ruta, in her older years, describes to a much younger woman who has come to learn about the history of the settlement. Less than about the settlement, Ruta’s story is about her family: different, keepers of a nursery of native plants in the midst of the rest of the moshav’s production of “industrial quantities of boys for all sorts of elite combat units.” Her tale comes in vivid scenes that seem disjointed, meandering, telling rather than showing, out of chronology and hard to follow at first, but which come together so brilliantly at the end, as revenge and then forgiveness and redemption triumph, that the reader can’t imagine any other way the tale might have been told.
Meir Shalev is known for eschewing politics in his novels. It is refreshing to see, from this early time, how trusted Bedouin midwives arrive and how settlers sit down with their Arab farmer neighbors, but how the laws between Jewish settlers are as self-made as in the American Old West. The character that has many attributes that remind us of Moshe Dayan, nevertheless lost his eye to his wife’s fury, wears a patch embroidered with flowers, and redeems himself in a way we could not think possible, and which surely would not have happened had he entered the national scene. Because Ruta is also the moshav’s secular teacher of Bible studies, her layers of meaning, her parsing of the sacred text in daily life all around her, beautiful and powerful, give the novel depth and universalism that tales created in the new-settled land of America cannot accomplish. This is Abraham and Isaac, Ruth and Boaz made almost-modern and of breathing flesh and blood.