Several years ago, when my daughter was in middle school and Israel was very much in the news, I was struck by the dearth of young adult fiction that might help her understand its complexities. Thankfully the Israeli author Nava Semel has made solid contributions in this category with Flying Lessons, Becoming Gershona, and And the Rat Laughed. Her latest novel, Paper Bride (Hybrid Publishers, $25), joins the list of books imaginatively presenting Israel’s early history and background to young readers.
Paper Bride is set in a Jewish village in British Mandate Palestine in 1935. It’s told for the most part through the words of 12-year-old Uzik, an orphan who lives with his mother’s sister, Aunt Miriam, and his older brother, Imri. Imri has been given a mission by the Jewish Agency to make a series of trips to Europe in order to marry four young Jewish women (one at a time) who wish to emigrate. Complications occur when he falls in love with his first wife, Anna, and the second wife refuses to grant him a divorce. As with most good young adult fiction, the suspenseful plot weaves back and forth and involves secret knowledge. Imri asks, “What do I know about women?” And because Uzik is such an attentive observer, he finds out a great deal about love, spiritual and physical.
The other secret is that part of Imri’s mission is to buy guns for pre-State Israel. In opening and closing chapters that bracket the novel, a much older Uzik, now a grandfather, speaks in an elegiac tone, “weighing the balance of good and bad” in the shared history of his generation. As an adult reader, I appreciate Semel’s acknowledgment that the period of innocence has passed; the way Israelis think about themselves and one another has changed. In a small moment at the very end of the novel, Uzik says, “Yes, I too have been contaminated.” With this, the novel achieves an honesty and nuance sometimes lacking when other authors present this history.
Paper Bride includes a large cast — many of them stock characters: Major Charles Timothy Parker, the gracious, cynical, and gallant Englishman; Mohammed Daudi, the gentle, generous, and wise beekeeper; Aharonchik, the village butcher, a staunch Bolshevik and a romantic; Zionka, the schoolmate with beautiful handwriting and golden braids. Sometimes Uzik’s words are perfectly calibrated in the voice of a 12-year old, and sometimes the sentences wobble between a younger or older child. At her best, Semel conveys a picture of Mandate Palestine that is affectionate and humorous. When Imri packs for Europe, he gathers up his father’s old woolen suit, long stored in an old shed. When he practices knotting his tie, Uzik observes, “He looked like a condemned prisoner who had volunteered to tie his own noose.” I especially liked “the Zionist duck,” designated so because it liked to peck at a picture of Theodor Herzl, particularly the accompanying words, “If you will, it is no fairy-tale.”
Frances Brent, author of The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson, works as a freelance
art journalist in New York.