If Grossman had explored his characters’ childhoods as richly outside as inside the household, we might better understand their behavior through the larger context. Ofer and Adam have been charged with the protection of their parents when they themselves are at their most vulnerable, while the state is subtly substituted as a refuge more trustworthy than the family. The child Ofer sleeps with a monkey wrench; he fears “Arabs,” but doesn’t seek shelter with his parents, relying on himself for safety. He has already been initiated, at age three, into understanding the world as a place of permanent endangerment, where parents are unable to rescue their threatened children. This would have made more sense of the boys’ rages and hysteria. We might then see the ambiguity of their passion to protect their parents, even as they later avenge themselves on those other parents helpless to protect their children—the Palestinians.
Grossman’s withholding of the political realities of Israeli childhood in the novel blunts the reader’s comprehension and response. He gives us an intimate experience of the cumulative effects of life in Israel on his characters, but the brilliantly idiosyncratic vignettes and intense scrutiny of one family obscure the ubiquity of the glorification of armed force, the relentless emphasis on the collective and group cohesion over individual values.
Ora wonders why she is more “loyal” to the state than to her motherhood, a bewilderment we share. She tells us that her boys change “when the army comes for them.” But it is difficult to grasp the irony of Ora’s illusion that the army is not already a presence in the private refuge of her household.
Yet from toy soldiers and paratrooper dolls, model tanks, displays of the emblems of Israeli army corps, pop songs from the armed forces radio station, school visits from soldiers, and picture books about army adventures, to teenagers taking state-sponsored trips to concentration camp sites in Poland, Israeli childhood educates for war. The crescendo of such trips is a visit to Auschwitz, where identification with the victims and with the group is achieved by a sort of hypnotic collective sobbing (the leaders call this process of induced catharsis “the coin dropping”). Observers describe fervent, and occasionally anguished, self-examination on the part of those who fail to weep.
Grossman has, though, given us an immensely convincing tragedy of a family disintegrating. His microscopic focus on the personal details of their domestic life together is a homage to their irreplaceable individuality, bringing to life their dilemma. They are, poignantly, creatures of their moment, wrought under particular ideological and spiritual pressures, not the eternal archetypes their culture asks them to be.
The terrible news Ora is running away from is not only that Ofer may have been killed in battle, but that something in him may have been killed at home. The novel is also, however, like its heroine, gently evasive. For all Ora’s obsessive remembering of her son, she never asks herself the essential question, the question that might alter altogether her sense of his life, and of her own: What are his true memories of her?