Book Review: Exodus

Leon Uris, 1958

Copyright © 2010 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published: 2010.01.15

Title: Exodus
Author: Leon Uris
Subject: The Jews Return Home to Build Modern Israel
Genre: Fiction / Historical Fiction
Publisher: Bantam Books (Doubleday)

I picked this up at a yard sale for 50 cents. It was well worth it.

“Exodus” covers real events in history, though fictional characters are created to provide a more intimate look at real people’s lives. The dates and places are real, as are the events.

Mostly, I enjoyed the story because it filled in some gaps in my historical knowledge of the late 1940s. As an American, I already knew about the holocaust, the concentration camps, and the liberation thereof by Allied forces in 1945. And I knew that Israel became a nation again in 1948.

What I didn’t know was what happened in the three missing years.

Written by American Leon Uris (who had covered Israel as a war correspondent), Exodus was the best-selling novel of 1959, and the book later became a movie starring Paul Newman, which I still haven’t seen.

Though Uris repeatedly takes the reader back into previous years, his narrative focuses on the Jewish struggles between 1945 and 1948, when they were harbored in detention camps all over Europe. Using fictional characters Kitty Fremont (an American nurse) and Ari Ben Canaan (a Jew who works to rebuild Israel), Uris takes the reader through the Jews’ tumultuous relationship with the British, who basically controlled the Middle East at the time; the blockade-running ships that brought thousands of Jews to Palestine; and the eventual battles with Arabs over the nationhood of Israel.

The story starts off slow, but builds tension steadily, and never lets up. I liked Uris’ long forays into the past, which helped illuminate the struggle of the Jews. First, he dropped back into the 1930s to give some background on the German Jews, the Polish Jews, and others in that part of Europe. Later, he delves back into the 1800s to describe the suffering of Russian Jews. Each time, he brings the reader deftly back to the late 1940s.

Some of the historical events were eye-opening for me. Having grown up in Oklahoma and Texas, I haven’t met many Jews and therefore hadn’t heard some of these things before. (On the other hand, my wife was raised in New York City; she was surprised at my lack of knowledge...)

The book doesn’t get too deep into the post-1948 problems of Israel, because its climax is the nationhood of that tiny country. But it acknowledges the problem of the displaced Palestinians and describes how that came about.

And, despite that it was written by a Jewish-American, I felt it painted the Arabs and Muslims in a surprisingly good light, with the exception of a few power-hungry leaders. (Isn’t that the case with many conflicts? The people are people, while a few men at the top are the cause for so much suffering...)

In fact, the real “bad guys” in the story are the British, though specific British characters are presented as well-meaning people.

For anyone interested in modern history, I’d recommend Exodus. It’s a quick read.

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