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Historical Fiction (British Mandate Palestine and State of Israel 1934-1967)
1944, British Mandate Palestine, Tonia’s parents take her and her brother and sister to live on Kfar Etzion, an isolated and struggling religious kibbutz south of Jerusalem. Fifteen-year-old Tonia does not believe that her father’s dream of establishing a Jewish state will ever come to be. Life on the kibbutz is harsh, and Tonia dreams of security and a little comfort, though material wealth for its own sake is not what she longs for. She wants something simple – to be able to bring up her own children under a roof of her own, in a place where they won’t feel constantly threatened. She is determined to seek this different life in America, as soon as she is old enough – even though that means turning her back on her love for Amos Amrani, a handsome young Yemenite who belongs to the Jewish underground.
Much of this novel takes place in Kfar Etzion, during its establishment, siege, and fall to the Arab Legion during hostilities immediately prior to Israel’s War of Independence – resulting in the massacre of its surviving defenders. A later part of the story is set in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Tonia tries to find her new life.
This is one of very few English novels that take place in British Mandate Palestine and the only one that tells the story of Kfar Etzion. While the characters are fictional, historical events are accurately portrayed. The Lonely Tree, however, does not read like a history book. It is a character-driven love story with no political agenda.
The Lonely Tree of the title still stands today.
The Lonely Tree – Then and Now
Soon after moving to Israel, I lived on kibbutz Ein Tsurim, near Ashkelon. Ein Tsurim was originally one of the settlements in Gush Etzion (the Etzion Bloc) south of Jerusalem. In every home in the kibbutz there were books and pamphlets about what had happened in Gush Etzion. Several of the members had lived there, taken part in the battles, and returned from captivity in Jordan. So I knew the story of Kfar Etzion. At least I knew the chronology of events.
It wasn’t until years later that I took pause to really think about the lives those people had lived. At the time I was living in Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip, and the first Intifada had begun. The roads were unsafe, and we heard rioting in Khan Yunis every day. During the darkest period, almost every week we learned that another of our neighbors had been murdered, often by someone who had worked for them for years. But still, we felt relatively safe because we knew the IDF was there. I tried to imagine coming to live in a place like that back when there was no Israeli army – only a handful of youngsters with obsolete weapons, little ammunition, and less training. I looked for a dramatized account of their story and was astonished to find that no one had written one.
I studied all of the historical accounts and visited the museum in Kfar Etzion, where there is a wealth of letters, minutes of meetings, etc. I chose not to interview any of the people who had actually been there, not wanting anyone to think that a particular character of mine had been based on a member of their family. There was no family like the Shulmans in Kfar Etzion. There were no adolescent children like Tonia.
Tonia has been proven “wrong.” People like her father did succeed in what seems like a miracle, Sometimes I wanted to hit her over the head; but I understand her completely.
2009 YWO Book of the Year Award
2012 Eric Hoffer Award for General Fiction, Honorable Mention
Water color of The Lonely Tree by Harriet Goitein