Saturday, April 11, 2020

The World That We Knew

Title:  The World That We Knew
Author:  Alice Hoffman
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2019. 384 pages.
ISBN:  1501137573 / 978-1501137570

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "If you do not believe in evil, you are doomed to live in a world you will never understand."

Favorite Quote:  "People said love was the antidote to hate, that it could mend what was most broken, and give hope in the most hopeless of times. That time was now."

Set in 1941 in Europe, the book begins with the question of what a mother would do to save her child. The answer is anything. A mother's love and desire to protect a child stands larger and steadfast than any faith, any commandment, and any opposition.

Hanni is a Jewish mother who sees the destruction and almost certain death that is all around her. Her only wish is not for herself. Rather, her one goal is that her daughter Lea should escape and live. Hanni cannot leave her own aging mother. So, who is to guide and protect Lea. The answer comes from the Jewish faith in the creation of a golem.

In Jewish mythology, a golem is created of clay but brought to life through magic. A golem exists only for the purpose its creator gives it. It is to cease to exist once that purpose is fulfilled. In this story, the golem created is Ava, and the creator is Ettie, the daughter of a rabbi. The rabbi's wife refuses the original requests, but Ettie, who has her own visions of escape from the atrocities she sees around me, does what her father will not.

With the golem Ava's protection, Lea finds her way to Paris to a distant family member. In that household are three young people - Victor, Julien, and Marianne.

Through the experiences of Ava, Ettie, Julien, Lea, Marianne, and Victor, this story depicts the horror of war. At the same time, the story also depicts love - between individuals and also of those who in their own way worked against the horror of war to save those they could. It is also a story of love in the sacrifices one is willing to make for those we love.

A third layer to the story is the mystical, surreal story of Ava itself. There is a children's story titled The Velveteen Rabbit. It is about an object and a little boy. It is about love, and it is about what "real" means. The idea of Ava's story beckons the lessons of that children's story.

In this way, the story of war manages to convey belief and hope and new beginnings. "He and ... had decided they would go to New York, where anything was possible. They wanted a new world, one where the future could be made by anyone who wished to do so, a country made by immigrants."

There is symbolism - particularly that of the heron - in the book that I still do not understand. I wish I could find the explanation of why a heron. The magical realism of the golem, the heron, and the angel of death lends an unusual tone to a story of war and the Holocaust. The book remains a memorable story of war but ultimately leaves a lasting impression of love and is ultimately the very human emotional story of a creature who is not created as human.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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