by Etta WilsonMarch, 2000
Birth of a nation: Thoenes focus on Israel's first days
The modern-day nation of Israel is 52 years old this year. That may not mean much to those in the pre-50 age set, but it's astounding when we consider the lapse of time since the previous Jewish state and the constant boil of ethnic and religious fervor in the region.
Jerusalem Vigil by Brock and Bodie Thoene (prononced Tay'nee) opens on May 14, 1948, the day Israel's statehood was declared. The novel covers a period of only five days, exploring those first difficult days from the angle of each different ethnic group involved. Jerusalem Vigil initiates the Zion Legacy series, projected to be six titles, each of which will delineate another few days or weeks in this dramatic birth-of-a-nation story. This follows two earlier series, Zion Chronicles and Zion Covenant, begun in 1986 and now numbering 32 titles and 6.5 million books in print. The Thoenes' fiction has garnered seven Gold Medallion Awards from the Christian Booksellers Association over the years.
How did the Thoenes get started on this epic writing venture? The two grew up together in Bakersfield, California, married when they were sophomores in college, and after graduation, went to work in Hollywood as researchers and screenwriters for John Wayne's Batjac Productions. Their first book together, Gates of Zion, originated as a screenplay to be produced with the makers of the movie Chariots of Fire while they were working at Batjac. In fact, it was John Wayne who encouraged them to create the Zion Chronicles series and who called the birth of the state of Israel the Jewish Alamo. When I talked with the husband-and-wife writing team, I asked why they had chosen the word Zion to title all their series. Also, I wondered, how can they create another good story about the same tensions in the same setting? Brock explained that Zion best expresses both the biblical and prophetic aspects of the city of Jerusalem. In Old Testament times, Zion was the name of the fortress conquered by King David prior to the first establishment of Jerusalem. The name connotes an incredible continuity. No other state has gone out of existence and come back centuries later. The Pope has called the establishment of Israel the most significant event of the 20th century, Brock reminded me.
In Jerusalem Vigil the Thoenes present the concentrated chaos of the first five days following the British evacuation mandated by the United Nations to establish a Jewish homeland. Even as the British were on the road to Tel Aviv, Jews and Arabs were positioning and arming themselves for the great land grab in the Old City. The book definitely has a cinematic flavor as scenes shift among the various characters, including Moshe Sachar, commander of forces defending the Jewish sector, and his wife, Rachel, survivor of German prison camps; Ahkmed al-Malik, Arab demolitions expert; and the Mother Superior of the Notre Dame Hospice just outside the city walls.
How did the Thoenes capture the detail that make the scenes so real? The two have gone to Israel time and again to talk with participants in the conflict, many of whom were young teens in 1948. They have researched customs, buildings, and language. Both Hebrew and Arabic are frequently used in dialogue.
We wanted readers to know what happened on an hour-by-hour basis. Although we have created some characters, everything in the book actually happened, Bodie said. In Jerusalem Vigil they provide three maps to help locate the action of the many scenes.
In describing how they write as a team, Brock noted that he is the chief researcher (he has degrees in history and education). You never really get to the end of research. No circumstance is wasted. He develops the outline of events for the novel; then Bodie, the journalist, develops characters and dialogue. When she has finished, Brock reads the scenes back to her since she is dyslexic. At this point she becomes more editor than author.
Now the Thoenes' three children are involved in all their writing projects. Sons John and Luke have written nine books of their own and collaborate to produce audio versions of their parents' books (read by the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Company). The Thoenes' daughter, Rachel, abridges the text for the audios. Four grandchildren, one born the day of our conversation, are a bit young yet, but no doubt there will be stories for them to research and share as well.
Meanwhile, Jerusalem Vigil promises meticulously researched, dramatic reading for today's historical fiction fans.
Etta Wilson is an agent and reviewer.