A parent’s work is never done, the saying goes, and there’s a reason for that. Several, in fact, but the existential one is the subtext for David Grossman’s fascinating book To the End of the Land. The work of organizing a home, and feeding nurturing and caring for its inhabitants always falls to someone, and in that work – cooking and eating and dishes and laundry – a lot of living gets done. This appears to be true regardless of culture. Grossman is an Israeli and Israel, with its three years of compulsory army service, asks much more of its parents than we do.
In the novel Ora, separated from her husband of 20 years, Ilan, and estranged from her older son, has left her home to go on a hike the length of the country, to pass the time while her second son, Ofer, extends his military service by a month. More importantly, she wants to be out of reach of the messengers she is desperately afraid will come to tell her of her son’s death in action. On the way to her starting point, she has an irremediable fight with her long-time Arab-Israeli driver, and plucks her old friend Avram out of his drab existence to accompany her. Avram has a tragic history of his own, slowly revealed through the course of the novel, that is inextricably intertwined with Ora’s and Ilan’s.
Ora spends the walk describing her family’s life to Avram. “A family is a perpetual occurrence,” she says at one point. She is still simultaneously avoiding and puzzling out the cause of its sundering. Avram, it is not giving away too much to reveal, is Ofer’s father. In the course of their walk, with Ora relating the story of Ofer’s 21 years, Avram becomes his parent. They walk from signpost to signpost but also from memorial to memorial, for soldiers, almost all aged 21. Regarding one, Ora says, “There’s no more room for all the dead.” Meanwhile, in a subplot I found to be not completely credible, Ora witnesses Avram slowly return to life, until, in a more realistic twist, she realizes that he has managed a life without her and Ilan despite their guilt.
The ending of the novel is ambiguous, though readers of The New Yorker who read George Packer’s 2010 profile of Grossman (available behind a paywall here) will remember that Grossman’s son Uri was killed during the time he wrote the book. It’s not an autobiographical novel; Grossman says in an endnote, “What changed, above all, was the echo of the reality in which the final draft was written.”
Endless conflict has a pernicious effect on the soul, and that’s what, in the end, this novel is about. What happens when living a good life, and teaching your child to be good, isn’t enough to protect your child? From circumstances? From the consequences of the choices he has had to make? Recently the New York Times ran a story about Israeli women picking up Palestinian women and children from the West Bank and taking them to the beach for the day. Is that enough? The morality may be particularly ambiguous in Israel. The universal truth, vividly exposed here, is that all the choices are bad and the compromises we have to make are ugly indeed.
Have you read this beautiful and troubling book? Does Ofer survive his extra month? What do you think will happened in the end to these characters? Use the comments and talk back!