Monday, January 16, 2012

Book Review: DAVITA’S HARP by Chaim Potok

When I was a kid people were either good or bad. The good ones went to church and dressed well and smiled a lot. Bad people wore jeans and didn’t go to church and had tattoos. I was too young to understand the complexity of humanity, my ten-year-old brain hadn’t developed that ability yet. But even through adolescence and into my early twenties, my views regarding the nature of people didn’t change. Not really. Good people were Christians who practiced their faith religiously and in full view of the public. And then there was everyone else, the non-Christians and atheists and Muslims who didn’t get it. (I reserved special distaste for people who claimed to be Christians but insisted on consuming wine and beer and didn’t seem to understand that these were the “Last Days”.)

If you would have asked me why my view was so extreme, I would have told you that believing in God was extreme and that you needed to follow your beliefs with your life. Or something along those lines. Back then, I’d heard of fundamentalism, but didn’t fully understand what it was or what it meant. All I knew was that people were either in or out, either on their way to heaven or to God’s eternal torture. It was simple and neat and easy.

As I’d held that view throughout my childhood years, I was certain that my understanding of people would never change, but when I started to see the lies and abuse fostered through such a simplistic perspective, I began to wonder. Perhaps the world was more complicated than that. Perhaps God was bigger than I’d imagined. Perhaps there weren’t two kinds of people after all…

These are the themes Chaim Potok addresses in his poignant novel DAVITA’S HARP. Set in Brooklyn circa. 1935, the novel tells the story of Illana Davita, a seven-year-old girl born to radical activist parents. Her mother is a non-practicing Jew who long ago gave up her faith after being raised in a strict orthodox home. Her father is an atheist and a journalist, a man who believes that a new era is about to be ushered in with the imminent destruction of Fascism. Both belong to the Communist Party.

Wonderfully told from the translucent lens of a child, the book traces Illana’s early years, her struggle to understand the tragedy both in the world and in her home. She does not understand the desperation of her parents’ activism or the rigidity of the religious people who surround them.

More than just another coming of age story, DAVITA’S HARP explores the dangers of secular and religious fundamentalism and how our inability to see the many colours of the world scar those around us. Published first in 1985, this prescient novel is particularly relevant considering just how polarized our culture has become, both religiously and politically. It seems we are increasingly pushed towards accepting the child-like notion that there are only two sides to every story. Only two answers to every question.

I’ll admit that there are days when the old me still likes this idea. Days when the world seems too complicated. Too hard. But then I’ll read a beautiful tale like the one Potok has crafted here and remember what I’ve seen. Remember how destructive such notions are. And for a while at least, I’ll find the courage to walk more slowly, to think a little more carefully, and love a bit more widely. No longer a child, and better equipped to handle the world’s lament.



NOTE: The original review from the NY Times is posted here, but be warned that it tells much of the story. Personally, I hate reviewers who insist on giving us a rehash of the entire story. DAVITA'S HARP is not a thriller, but I still don't want to know everything that happens before I read a book. But for those of you who prefer such reviews, it may be helpful.