In the early stages of David Grossman’s “To The End of the Land,” the book’s protagonist, Ora, sees her youngest son, Ofer, off at an Israeli Defense Forces location. With his three year tour of duty completed, Ofer and Ora were supposed to be setting off to hike the trails of Israel. Instead, Ofer voluntarily re-upped for the IDF’s newest military campaign.
The description of parents seeing children off to war, soldiers greeting each other with bellicose salutations, and the machines of battle revving up has a particular resonance for me. Over the last month and a half, my brother’s deployment date for Afghanistan has been pushed back time and time again. Originally scheduled for early June, and then later that month, it is now set for the middle of July.
The heart of Grossman’s novel lies in how family responds to a beloved relatives return to the front lines impacts those left behind at home. The sad explanation for the vividness of a parent’s struggle with the potential loss of a child in what has been such an endless fight can be found at the end of “To The End of the Land.” In a note from the author. Grossman explains that during the writing of the book, his son Uri, was killed in the closing moments of the 2006 war in Lebanon. The tank his son was in was trying to rescue a group of soldiers when the vehicle was hit by a rocket.
There is a beauty in this book and it emanates from the interwoven natures of the various stories coming together over the course of Ora’s hiking (Some spoilers ahead). With her youngest son back in the military and her husband, Ilan, along with their oldest son Adam, having run off to the Galapagos Islands, Ora commandeers Avram, her and her husband’s oldest friend, into taking Ofer’s spot on the hike.
The story of how Ora, Ilan, and Avram met and began their life-altering friendship is told in the opening chapter. All three are teenagers in an Israeli hospital, overcome by extreme fevers, in the midst of the Six Day War of 1967. It took me two weeks to read this book. The first week was dedicated to this first chapter. At first, I thought the whole book was going to be slow going, cover to cover. After finishing the book, the writing in the first chapter seems to be intentionally slow going since all three characters are in a feverish state where sometimes they believe their interactions are just figments of their own imagination, not reality (Serious spoilers ahead).
Revealed through flashbacks as Ora and Avram cross rivers, climb mountains, collect a canine companion, and meet a wide variety of folks during their hiking, the reader finds out how Avram and Ilan became inseperable as friends. We also find out how Avram deeply loved Ora, despite the fact that she was in love Ilan.
Their lives change, inexorably, in 1974. A moment, that these friends can never shake, sends Avram to the front lines where he ends up being captured, tortured by the Egyptians, and then harshly interrogated by the Israelis on the grounds that he might have divulged classified military intelligence. Ilan and Ora are together and she becomes pregnant with their first child. After the birth of Adam, Ilan leaves them, only to end up moving into the shed in the backyard of the house they were living in – Avram’s house
During the hiking, Ora tells Avram about his son Ofer. Ora has decided to hike because she wants to get as far away from any possible bad news. She doesn’t want the military messengers to find her. She wants to protect Ofer with her thoughts. She wants to keep him alive, to shield him with her words. To do this, she tells Ofer’s life story to Avram. But to tell Ora’s story, she tells the story of Adam and the story of Ilan and Ora. In a year where many books have focused on the quirks and problems of families, “To The End of the Land” stands out because as Ora realizes, with her husband and oldest son gone and Ofer on the frontlines, she is eulogizing her family.
Grossman’s book is more than a novel about a family. It is a novel about history. History as it happened and history as it unfolds in the present. Before the hike, where Ora helps Avram reanimate himself, she has spent most of her time with Sami, her driver. A Palestinean, their friendship frays when she has him drive her and Ofer to his deployment. Later that night when she requests a ride to pick up Avram, he makes a pit stop at a school where illegal refugees who need medical care are being sheltered. On the ride up to this make shift hospital, Ora sits next to a young child with several serious conditions. Israel’s YNET described “To The End of the Land” as “the closest thing to antiwar novel that has ever been written here….” What makes it so antiwar is that it shows the devastating impact war has on individuals on both sides of the battlefield. The writing is evidence that skin deep wounds may heel, but a part of soldiers, and those at home, are never the same. Even worse, generations not yet born during these battles carry the wounds and scars of those fights into this world.