Safekeeping, by Jessamyn Hope (Fig Tree Books, 2014)
I’ve always thought great literature charts the history of missed connections—and the human struggle to repair lost opportunities or absent relations. From Odysseus’s wandering return to Ithaca, to Anna Karenina’s doomed love affair, to the social and familial alienation of Leopold Bloom, the poignancy of literary art often comes from the longings and lamentations over what-might-have-been.
Missed connections form the heart of Safekeeping, a beautiful novel by Jessamyn Hope that spans the centuries but centres largely on a kibbutz near Mt. Carmel in the mid 1990s. I’d picked up the book, of course, when I learned of its kibbutz focus, especially the setting of a community on the verge of privatization. But I fell under the spell of Hope’s storytelling, characterization and unexpected shifts in narrative focus, even as I enjoyed how she wove the history of the kibbutz movement and the state of Israel into her novel’s backstory.
The missed connections—and the emotional turmoil they cause—are plentiful in Safekeeping, and most gravitate around a mysterious brooch, made by a Jewish goldsmith in the 14th century, of great value and even greater personal significance. There are missed connections between a grandfather and grandson in New York City; a father and son in the same district; a kibbutz-founding mother and her privatization-minded son in Israel; two pairs of star-cross’d lovers—a Chernobyl-scarred immigrant and a Palestinian-Israeli, a thirty-year-old French Canadian who has grown up in a mental asylum and a teenage kibbutz musician disfigured in a terrorist attack; and the equally secretive affair between a Holocaust survivor and a kibbutz pioneer during the turbulent birth of a nation.
The brooch acts as an objective correlative to evoke this sense of missed connections even as it joins the disparate characters and historical timelines of the story, like E. Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes or the movie The Red Violin. But Hope never overplays the brooch’s symbolic significance, and many of the characters resist its allure in interesting ways while others let its raw worth corrupt their personalities.
The main narrative follows Adam, a young recovering alcoholic haunted by many mistakes, through his months as a volunteer on a kibbutz in the Galilee on a mission, to return the brooch to a once-intended-recipient, whose importance even he doesn’t fully understand. Some of the most powerful scenes, however, are short interruptions or epilogues to the story of Adam and his grandfather. In one, Hope vividly evokes the horrors and desperation of a Black Plague pogrom—and the act that sets the novel’s drama in motion.
History otherwise works in the background to the characters’ lives: the Holocaust, the founding of Israel, the Oslo Accords and bus bombings of the 1990s, the divided reaction to the Jewish State around the world, the rise and decline of the kibbutz movement as a society of equals. There’s a depth of research, but Hope never forces it upon her readers or her characters. Toward the book’s end, the vote about privatization on the novel’s kibbutz feels, in fact, anti-climactic. More important are the last actions of her cast of characters—and whether they can breach those missed connections that have left them alone, deeply damaged or both. Some do. Some don’t. We are often left to imagine how key figures manage the trajectory of their lives, rather than having it all spelled out for us by the book’s final pages.
And the conclusion is a masterful exercise in surprise and indirection—a novelistic risk that pays off—that left me thinking and rethinking about all the characters and their decisions that had populated my imagination for the past two weeks.
Come for the kibbutz content. Stay for the storytelling. Safekeeping is a book that you will want to pass along to friends and relations, like a small heirloom too beautiful to keep to yourself.
And one more change. The journey from inspiration to publication for this book has been long and winding. I’d count it at six years of researching and writing — and 27 years of thinking about my experiences as a young, naive kibbutz volunteer.
The path to a final title, subtitle and cover has been equally circuitous, if a bit more accelerated. The marketing folks at ECW Press came back with one more recommended change — this time to the title… I was nervous when I heard the publisher wanted to switch the title again. (I’d changed it three times on my own.) But then I saw the new version, matched to the sunset image from the Hula Valley, and it all just felt right. And then we added “Future” into the sub-title and everything clicked.
Now, I’ve got a pair of Advanced Readers’ Copies to make the book seem even more real — I can lift it up and flip through its pages and begin to worry about reviews!
mostly, I’m thrilled that this story — and the stories of the many people I met in Israel and the West Bank — will finally get shared with curious readers.
So what do you think?
Reporters at Ha’aretz dipped into the newspaper archives and discovered the smoking-gun to the “Where did Bernie volunteer?” mystery: in an interview with reporter Yossi Melman from 1990, the Bernie Sanders said he spent several months in 1963 on Kibbutz Sha’ar Ha’ amakim in Western Galilee. Media are already sweeping the kibbutz, near Haifa, to learn more, although few people seem to have any memory of the young American who worked there before the big post-1967 wave of volunteers.
Anybody want to translate the original Ha’aretz story? Or more importantly, tell us if Kibbutz Sha’ar Ha’ amakim has privatized since America’s Best Known Socialist once worked there?
… or at least a winning sub-title for my book. Technically, I think it was my editor who helped slash through the kudzu of potential taglines and help me arrive at the words that will appear under Love & Rockets. Drum roll, please!
Chasing Utopia in a Divided Israel
I think “Chasing” works better than the “Stumbling Towards” (too cute, too unclear) and conveys the sense that utopia — that dream of a better society — is always something we are in search of, the greener grass on the other side, the mirage on the horizon. It also (I hope!) suggests that the book is both about the kibbutz movement’s search for utopia and my own quest to discover what became of that dream, 100 years after the first pioneers created Degania.
So, the Chase is on. Next up: going through the editor’s notes. ANother thorough fact-check. And hopefully some cover options to mull over.
British acting legend Helen Mirren was recently honoured in Los Angeles at the Israel Film Festival and spoke about her experiences in the country—including a stint as a volunteer on Kibbutz Ha’on six months after the Six Day War, when the first wave of foreign visitors arrived to kibbutzes across Israel to fill in for members called up for Army service to defend the country. She recalls sleeping on the beach in Eilat—a pleasure that I shared, too, although two decades later.
“That visit to Israel was one of the important building blocks, in my life,” she told the audience. “The courage and the commitment of those early people working on the kibbutz that I was luck enough to meet briefly. These building blocks that make personal lives and that make countries.”
Kibbutz Ha’on, however, is no longer a kibbutz. In 2007, the indebted community returned its land to the state and became a semi-cooperative moshav instead.