River by Shira Nayman; Guernica Editions, 2020; ISBN 9781771-834575; 255 pages; $25.
“River,” in the context of this novel, is a metaphor for the continuity of life.
As Emily, 14, would hear from a wise African man during the time-travel that took her back to meet previous generations of her family, “We must travel the river we’re thrown into. Every river has its story. Their sources reach far, far away – and their destinations, well, those are the greatest mysteries of all.”
The river on which generations of Emily’s family had traveled traversed many dangerous rapids and waterfalls. Already attuned to the injustice of racial discrimination in America, Emily found other kinds of virulent race hatred as she traveled back to witness her ancestors’ journeys.
She saw her grandmother growing up among pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic, white Afrikaaners of South Africa, learning first-hand why her grandmother was so relieved to escape that country for Australia. It was not only the Jews with whose plight Emily empathized: it was the also that of the Black families forced to live in poverty under the heartlessness of South African apartheid. And, she learned, there was oppression in Australia too, of the Aboriginal people.
Traveling back another generation, Emily found herself in Lithuania, where she met a 14-year-old version of her great-grandmother, who would flee the Jew-hatred so prevalent in that country to what she hoped would be a better life in South Africa. Together they escaped a pogrom in which homes and the town’s synagogue was burned down.
Next, she traveled even farther back to the time of her biblical ancestors, living by the waters of Babylon, yearning to return to Jerusalem. There she met a 14-year-old multi-great-grandmother, whom she questioned why she ever would want to leave a home that she had known for an uncertain future in Jerusalem.
Babylon might be comfortable, even physically beautiful with its hanging gardens, but with its belief in Moloch, an idol god to whom human babies were sacrificed, Babylon never could be home, her young ancestor replied.
No matter where she went, nor how far back in time she traveled, Emily felt homesick for her own 21st century. She missed her mother, who was ailing with cancer, and her father, who was doing everything he could to help her mother through their medical crisis. She longed to be big sister again to her innocent, trusting little brother, through whose questions she often found herself appreciating her own contemporary world.
Author Nayman has a remarkable gift for description which enables us to imagine that we are with her on her remarkable journey, seeing the sights that she sees, and learning Jewish history along the way. We also feel the confusion and guilt that she feels. She has learned on her travels what became of her ancestors and their families. Should she tell her great-grandmother’s brother not to stay in Lithuania because years later he and his family would be murdered by the Nazis?
Could she tell her grandmother, then abhorring life in South Africa, that someday she would live in Australia, and have the wonderful daughter that would become Emily’s own mother?
Would any of these disclosures change history? Would she dare?
Republished from San Diego Jewish World