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Alison PickAlison Pick’s long-awaited new novel, “Strangers with the Same Dream” to be first subject  of new season of the  “People of the Book Club”
What a treat it was to put down Méira Cook’s latest novel, “Once More With Feeling”, and almost immediately begin reading another novel by a brilliant Jewish Canadian woman, Alison Pick – two completely different novels and two entirely different styles of writing, but both absolutely captivating.

Set in 1920s Palestine or, as the early halutzim already called it, “Eretz Yisrael”, “Stranger with the Same Dream” tells the story of the founding of a fictitious kibbutz somewhere along the Jordan River,  not too far from the Sea of Galilee.

The book is told in three parts, from three different  perspectives: Ida’s – who has just arrived from Russia where her father has been killed in a pogrom and her mother has decided to send her away so that she, at least, will have a chance of surviving; David’s – the kibbutz leader who, as we come to learn, has a dark past and an even darker nature; and Hannah’s – David’s wife, who suffers terribly, not only because of David’s total neglect, but because of other terrible events that have happened to her through no fault of her own.
Amidst the swirling emotions that surround these three very well-drawn characters we meet other halutzim who, rather than being the kind of cardboard characters we’re used to imaging early pioneers in Israel as having been, from romantic depictions in books and films – you know, shorts-wearing, hard working, dancing the hora at night, turning the barren land into rich fields types– all imbued with the Zionist dream  - the individuals in “Strangers with the Same Dream” are all too real, many warts and all. It’s so easy to identify with them as they cope with one unbearable challenge after another – whether it’s the heat, the mosquitoes, the rocky soil, the constant looming threat of attack from their Arab neighbours, hunger, and so on, that the fact that enough of them survived and persevered to build the modern State of Israel, can’t help but make one  realize how truly heroic those early pioneers were.

Yet, along with this book being a beautifully drawn description of all the challenges those early halutzim faced, it’s also a riveting mystery. The further I got into “Strangers with the Same Dream” the more I was comparing it in my mind to the novel that was all the sensation two years ago, “The Girl on the Train”, by Paula Hawkins.
Something terrible has happened at some point; there is considerable foreshadowing and occasional hints as to what’s taken place. But, it’s only toward the very end of the book that we find out exactly what happened. Yet, during the course of “Strangers with the Same Dream”, other cruel twists of fate occur from time to time – some that might have been prevented had only a little more care been taken, others totally unavoidable, such as the many halutzim who come down with “kalachat” (malaria). The relative dispassionate attitude that so many of the characters display toward the frequent intrusion of random death into their lives, I suppose, is the only way that most of them could have persevered. Indeed, during the course of the story, not everyone is able to cope with the omnipresent dangers that life on an early kibbutz held.

What Alison Pick also does – and this is a credit to the formidable research she has undertaken, is peel back many of the myths that have grown up about those early halutzim. One chapter, in which the members of one kibbutz decide whether it’s too early to start allowing children to be born on to the kibbutz, is blood curdling in just thinking about young Jewish women being forced to undergo abortions, yet for the members of the kibbutz, it comes down to a practical consideration: Is the kibbutz sufficiently developed to sustain the raising of children, not just in terms of the extra food that will be required, but in terms of the diversion of resources from other required areas, such as cultivating fields, and orchards and tending to them?
Here is one excerpt that describes how holidays that have now been elevated to major events within the Jewish community were relatively unimportant to the early halutzim – until the deliberate decision was taken to magnify their significance for specific reasons:
“Thin Rivka and the Angel Gabriel wanted to light the Hanukkah candles with Ruth and Hannah. It was something the children had all done with Liora, who had an uncanny knack for reinstating old Hebrew festivals that nobody knew had existed in the first place. She had plucked from the air the Israeli folk dances that had been lost to time, and taught them anew to the children. She had shown them how to celebrate Tu B’Shevat, a holiday nobody had even heard of. And she had found an old menorah that Rivka pulled out of her bag now, along with the tapered candles to fill it.”

As per the usual custom of the “People of the Book Club” anyone is invited to attend – even if you haven’t read the book that is the subject for discussion. In the case of “Strangers with the Same Dream”, not only will some attendees be able to offer their comments on a beautiful work of fiction, others might find the discussion of early pioneer life in Israel to be highly educational. I know that even though I thought I knew a fair bit about that period in Israel’s history, this book opened my eyes so much more about the hardships the halutzim endured.
As well, Alison Pick (as well as Méira Cook) will both be appearing at the upcoming Tarbut festival. I, myself, am looking forward to seeing Alison discuss her book live on stage. Also, while I saw Méira do that last week at McNally Robinson’s, she’s such a treat  to listen to talking about the craft of writing – and so very funny, that I won’t miss the opportunity to hear her again.

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