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Promised Land

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Promised Land
by Martin Fletcher
Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press
Hardcover, 416 pages.

ISBN: 9781250118820, $28.99

There are, in my opinion, two kinds of bad historical novels, and only one kind of the good ones. Let's talk about the bad ones first.

Examples of one type of bad historical novels are, with all due respects, the kind James Michener used to write. His "five foot shelf" of books like Hawaii, Centennial, The Source and Chesapeakeall suffer from the same problem: they are heavy on history, and very light on the things that make a novel—like plot, character development, and an ear for dialogue. Michener's novels are essentially just lightly fictionalized history text books, each with a portentous amount of facts and analysis, and every character—from kings and cardinals down to street sweepers and camp followers—speaking like an emeritus professor of history at Harvard University.

Let's not name names, but we all know the other type of bad historical novels. These are the ones that are heavy on fiction and feather-light on history. Often bestsellers, these books are all about people, personal relations, emotional conflicts and page-turning excitement, but only vaguely connected to a historical time and place. Although ostensibly set, for example, in medieval Europe, the story could be happening any time and anywhere, with twenty-first century dialogue. Worse, these novels often commit the sin of projecting contemporary values, like feminism, racial equality, and a desire for peace, back to historical periods in which these values were conspicuously absent.

Good historical novels are those that achieve the right balance of history and fiction, that have just the right amounts of historical detail and vividly-drawn characters interacting in ways that are both relatable and historically correct. Examples of these are Shogun by James Clavell, Aztecby Gary Jennings and, dealing with matters closer to home, Exodus by Leon Uris and The Settlers by Meyer Levin.

And Promised Land, by Martin Fletcher. Among the world's most respected TV news correspondents, Fletcher was for many years American news network NBC's Bureau Chief in Tel Aviv. He knows Israel, and he knows how to write a history that crackles with both riveting detail and compelling characters which the reader truly cares about.

Promised Land tells the story of the State of Israel—its establishment, wars, internal struggles, development and prosperity—through the lives of two brothers. The story begins in Munich, Germany, November 1937. The Quakers have arranged to send Peter, the fourteen-year-old son of a Jewish family to a Christian family in the U.S. state of Wisconsin, to escape the mounting anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany. Peter's parents, two sisters, and younger brother Aren—all slated to follow Peter to America at a later date—tearfully watch Peter climb into an American Quaker woman's car and head west to freedom. The rest of the family is eventually taken east, by Nazis, to concentration camps and murder. Only Aren, the younger brother, survives.

The brothers are reunited in the newly-established, fledging State of Israel, where each finds himself on a separate path, Peter as an intelligence officer, and Aren—now Arie—as a big businessman, builder, and land developer. Their saga takes us through virtually every major event in Israel's history, from shortly after the War of Independence through the Six-Day War and its immediate aftermath. Historical figures, like David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan, appear throughout the narrative as the living, breathing, complicated human beings they actually were.

And for those who like a little 'humanity' with their history, Promised Land is also the stage for a torrid, tense, and emotionally compelling love triangle, as both brothers fall deeply in love with the same woman, Tamara, a refugee from Cairo.

The book is an 'un-put-down-able' page turner. I read it, all 416, in three late nights. Published in September 2018, Promised Land is intended to be the first volume of a trilogy. I eagerly await volume two. 

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Thursday, 13 May 2021

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