How must it feel to be absolutely displaced, stripped of your beloved family and culture, in a faraway land? How does identity travel with you, and how is that identity transformed as you change? These questions are at the center of Louisa, a new novel by Simone Zelitch.
Like A Thousand Acres, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Jane Smiley, Louisa offers a modern interpretation of a classic story. While Smiley's novel retells the story of King Lear and his daughters on the rolling green hills of Iowa farmland, Zelitch opts for an Old Testament tale. Louisa draws on the biblical story of Ruth, the Moabite princess who follows her Israelite mother-in-law to her homeland and adopts her religion. Zeltich moves the characters to post-war Europe, where a young German widow named Louisa follows her Hungarian mother-in-law, Nora, to Israel in 1949.
The novel begins with the arrival of two weary women in Israel. As Louisa helps Nora onto an Israeli refugee bus, she is immediately identified and stigmatized as a German by the bundled and traumatized Jewish passengers around her. The relationship between Nora and Louisa, and the struggles they face, become the focus of the novel. Zelitch's motivation for writing came from a strong desire to explore the displacement and destruction of the Jewish people during and after World War II. As a teacher with the Peace Corps in Hungary, she sought answers to her questions about the Holocaust in the sturdy faces of her Hungarian students, in the abandoned and blown-out synagogues she struggled to comprehend, and in the fact that her town had a Jewish cemetery, but no living Jewish residents.
Louisa begins with a situation so open-ended, one wonders how the author will ever bring the ends together. The two women spend much of the novel trying to find Nora's Zionist pioneer cousin Bela, who has founded a kibbutz. The steady voices of the characters hold the novel together, as memory leads through to memory again. Those voices hold the reader through the strange and unlikely tales of this fascinating book.
Amy Ryce writes from Charlottesville, Virginia.