Alison Pick discusses her new novel, Strangers with the Same Dream, at the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival Nov. 25. (photo by Emma Lee)
“Here they were, she thought, in this remote land of Palestine, far from their homes and families. They had left their lives as they knew them to turn the Balfour Declaration, and the idea of a homeland for the Jews, into truth. They were strangers with the same dream…. But this was the thing: Zionism was not just an idea. It was something that was happening, now and now and now. It was something she could make happen.”
So thinks Ida, one of the three main characters in Alison Pick’s latest novel, Strangers with the Same Dream (Knopf Canada, 2017). Pick will be in Vancouver to open the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival on Nov. 25, 7:30 p.m., at the Rothstein Theatre. Appropriately enough, the title of her conversation with Jerry Wasserman is Idealism vs. Reality.
Ida has come to Palestine, to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, on her own from Russia, having seen her father killed and knowing that the brutal attackers also raped her mother; her sister, “Eva, thank God, had been at school.”
It is 1921. Ida is part of the Third Aliyah, one of many other young idealists, most of whom had no idea at the harsh conditions that awaited them – the heat of the dessert, the abundance of malaria-spreading mosquitoes, the backbreaking work, the relinquishment of individuality and, of course, their new Arab neighbours, who were displaced by their arrival.
The leader of Ida’s particular group is David, who immigrated during the Second Aliyah, in 1910. He “had helped establish the moshava [settlement] at Kinneret, planting eucalyptus trees along the muddy banks, negotiating with the fellaheen [farmers]. Ida heard he had traveled the entire length of Eretz Yisrael on horseback, meeting the Arabs in every tent and marketplace, learning their various customs so as to help in the purchase of land.”
And there is David’s wife, Hannah, who, “like David, had arrived in the Second Aliyah, which meant the halutzim [pioneers] instantly respect her.” While the “historic speeches fell to David; Hannah was left with the logistics.” For example, Hannah was the one to request that the new olim (immigrants) voluntarily surrender all of their valuables “to the enterprise they were building together. She did not want strangers circulating like policemen to take each other’s belongings. Especially not after what so many of them had been through in Czarist Russia.”
“Following the writing of my memoir Between Gods, I was very interested in the relationship between truth and memory, and the ways in which different people (family members, as one example, or characters) experience the same events very differently,” Pick told the Independent. “I love to challenge myself with each new book and so I decided to try and tell the same story through three different sets of eyes. I wanted the reader to have the pleasure of seeing things the characters did not; that is, miscommunications, misunderstandings, falsely attributed motivations.”
The protagonists could be considered archetypes of a sort. “Although I didn’t set out to write it that way,” said Pick, “Hannah certainly has some of the Mother in her, and Ida has the Maiden. David, I suppose, could be seen as a Trickster, although that might be a generous way to characterize him.”
The novel is introduced by a short prologue, written in the voice of a ghost – a former halutza – who sets up the narrative and then enters it occasionally.
“The ghost is a link between the past and the present,” explained Pick. “Because the three narrative voices were necessarily so limited, I wanted an additional over-arching outside view – outside of time, even – who could reflect both backward and forward. I was also thinking about the idea of haunting – that Israel today (as with Canada, as with many other places) is haunted by history, by the very real lives of those who came before us and influence how we live and how we understand our own stories.”
Pick chose to set the novel in 1921 for a number of reasons.
“I’m not an historian, although I do love writing historical fiction – and, while there is a lot of leeway in fiction as a genre, it is important to me to get the historical facts right. So, I set relatively narrow parameters for myself – all the action takes place roughly over the course of one year. The kibbutz in Strangers with the Same Dream is fictional, but it is loosely based on Kibbutz Ein Harod, established in 1921. While there had been other, smaller attempts at kibbutzim, Ein Harod was the first attempt on a bigger scale, and it is a kibbutz that has, still today, a mythical presence in the collective psyche of Israel.”
The novel took Pick about three years to write, and she did research in Israel.
“At Kibbutz Ein Harod, there is an incredible archive about the early years of kibbutz life,” said Pick. “I was able to access first-person diaries, many written by the female pioneers, which I had translated from Hebrew. Both the translator and the archivist herself were wonderful sources of information about the early years, and they introduced me to an elderly man (who has sadly since passed away), who was there at the establishment of the kibbutz in 1921. So, I read, I researched, I listened, I imagined. And then I tried to breathe life into a world of the past, to bring it to life for readers today.”
While some readers might find the ghost an intrusive presence, I found the novel completely engaging, in part because it shows some of the grim realities the halutzim faced, not only from the land and their Arab neighbours, but from one another. Readers will be able to picture what it was like in those early days. If I wasn’t sure before, I am now that I would have made a poor halutza – the hard work and strange surroundings wouldn’t have been nearly as daunting as the high risk of malaria and the challenges of living in a collective with few resources. I came away from the novel with more admiration for (most of) those who worked to make the idea of Zionism a reality. At least one reviewer, though, has imputed an anti-Zionist message to the novel.
“I confess I have been surprised by the (few) reviews that take the novel as anti-Zionist,” said Pick. “Perhaps I’m naïve – and I am certainly a newcomer to Judaism, which is no secret – but I adore Israel. I traveled there three times during the writing of the book and, each time, I fell more madly in love with the place.
“It did not occur to me that exploring the psyche of those early Zionists – who at the very least did realize that the place they were ‘settling’ was already populated – would be construed as anything other than telling the simple truth. I did not start out with a political message and, indeed, I think to do so is anathema to good fiction. The role of art, as I see it at least, is to open, to unravel, to make space for more questions rather than to judge, decide or condemn. Although one of the characters [David] is decidedly a villain, albeit I hope one in whom the reader sees humanity, the other two main players (Hannah and Ida) are, to my mind, hugely sympathetic. Everyone in the novel – Jews and Arabs alike – are simply trying to make do in a both remarkable and remarkably difficult situation.”
For tickets to hear Pick, and for the full book festival lineup, visit jewishbookfestival.ca.