Martyr’s Crossing by Amy Wilentz, Simon & Schuster, $24.
A Palestinian mother tries to bring her sick toddler from the territories into Israel for medical help on a day when violence has prompted the Israelis to seal the border crossing. The Israeli soldier in charge hesitates, makes her wait, then disobeys orders and decides to let them through. But it is too late—Ibrahim dies at the checkpoint. His death triggers the plot of Martyr’s Crossing. Rooted in the thick of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Amy Wilentz has woven what might well be this morning’s headlines into a tense page-turner of a novel.
Ibrahim is the son of a Palestinian leader and suspected terrorist imprisoned in an Israeli jail. Doron, the Israeli soldier who was in charge at the checkpoint, defies his superiors and begins a treacherous personal quest to pay penance to the child’s mother Marina. Marina, born and raised in the United States, is pushed by her son’s death to rethink her commitment to live in Palestine as the wife of a Palestinian leader.
All the principals involved in the plot avoid simple stereotypes. Racked with guilt, the soldier Doron sympathizes with the Palestinians. Marina, who knows Doron did his best to help her child, refuses to divulge his name.
Instead of catapulting Marina into extremism, her child’s death fills her with ambiguities. “We all agree, but in the end, so what? What if we win? If you could establish a Utopia on earth at the expense of the eternal suffering of one child and its mother, even a Zionist child and its mother, then Marina did not want that Utopia.” As her child’s death becomes almost public property, Marina’s private grief is poignantly drawn: “She was washing Ibrahim’s clothes…His two blue jumpers, his blue jeans, the black sweatshirt with a Ninja Turtle on it…His bibs she had set aside because she couldn’t bear to wash them just yet, his bibs, and the foot pajamas that still gave off the sweet smell of the sleeping child.”
The “party hacks” of both Palestinians and Israelis, unsavory mirror images of each other, come off much worse than the sympathetic figures of Marina and Doron. The Palestinian is a corrupt politico who views the child’s death as a weapon for political manipulation. Doron’s single-minded commander is a cynical old-timer who believes in nothing but realpolitlk.
Wilentz, an American writer who lived in Israel for several years as a correspondent for The New Yorker, has an acute eye for the country’s details: “Doron hated the desert wind…it reminded you that .Jerusalem, with its McDonald’s and Burger Kings and nice red buses and nice red post offices and its nice green gardens…was actually right on the edge of an ancient desert where camels and cactuses and Bedouins were the only successful species.”
While rooting for Wilentz’ rich sympathetic characters, the reader knows all along that what began in tragedy cannot deliver a happy ending.
Helen Schary Motro an American lawyer and writer living in Israel, is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post.