The Covenant by Naomi Ragen

Before even going into the details of the plot for The Covenant by Naomi Ragen (2004), I'll note the author is an American citizen, Jewish, and has lived in Israel for over thirty years. Certainly, this book would be entirely different if written by, say, a Palestinian author born and raised in the West Bank. Who Ragen is colors this story, and her depth of feeling for the subject matter is what makes the book work so well.

I've been fascinated with Israel since visiting with my mom on her dream trip in 2000, when I literally fell in love with the country. Neither Jewish nor Muslim, I have a difficult time truly understanding the cultural conflict from either side (and I don't make the mistake of thinking there are only two perspectives--there are multiple perspectives within each group), yet I empathize with both. I only wish the situation could be resolved peacefully, naive as that hope may be.

The Covenant begins with the kidnapping of Jon Margulies, an American oncologist living in Israel, and his five-year-old daughter, Ilana, by a Hamas cell on their way home from Ilana's ballet recital. (Note to self: Quit reading these books where you spend the entire story thinking about your own five-year-old daughter in the character's traumatic position.) Jon's wife, Elise, already on bedrest awaiting the birth of their second child, calls on her grandmother, Leah, a Holocaust survivor living in New York, for support.

Unknown to Elise, Leah and three of her friends, Ariana, Maria, and Esther, made a covenant while at Auschwitz to always be there for each other, no matter what. The kidnapping of Leah's grandson-in-law and great-granddaughter send the covenant into full effect, with far-reaching, dramatic results. The most engaging part of the book for me is learning about how these women survived the Holocaust together, what happened in their lives during the years afterwards, and seeing them reunite in Israel.

There are wonderful side characters--the American journalist, the Polish Catholic grandson of one of the Auschwitz survivors, the American granddaughter of one of the Auschwitz survivors and her Saudi husband, etc. They bring the story to life with their very different perspectives (and roles) with the hostage situation.

And people, both during World War II and the present day, make choices in this book--difficult choices that can cost the individual everything. Sometimes, the choice ends well; sometimes, the choice doesn't end well--at least not for the individual in question.

Throughout everything, Ragen's writing exudes a sense of faith and hope, or, as Leah tells her granddaughter, "A person can live through anything, Elise. Remember that." (p.44).

I already ordered two more books by Ragen, a new-to-me author who is apparently revered in Israel, to enjoy and then give to my mom to read.

Learn more at the author's site here.

My overall personal rating of The Covenant is an A-.


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