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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Point of No Return: A Tragic Novel of An American Jewish Soldier in WWII

When I agreed to review  Point of No Return by Martha Gellhorn for the publisher of the new digital edition, I knew nothing of the author.  The name was familiar, but I should have known more of her.  She led an extraordinary life as a war journalist, novelist and the third wife of Ernest Hemingway.  Without this background, I began reading my ARC from Open Road Media via Net Galley without any expectations or preconceptions.


 Gellhorn wrote  Point of No Return soon after WWII.  It was first published in  1948.  According to her Afterword that appears at the end of the book, she had been a witness to events in this war as a journalist who traveled with British troops.  Although I have read quite a number of WWII novels, I hadn't read any that were written by a woman author who had experienced the war first hand.

Many combat oriented war novels tend to bore me because their action is abstract and distanced without the thoughts and feelings of soldiers.  They may have done their research, but their battle scenes aren't involving.  I read historical fiction because I want to know more than what happened.  I want to feel that I'm actually there.  Martha Gellhorn delivered authentic characters and showed us what they were really going through.   Now that I know that she was a participant as a journalist, I realize that this wasn't just research for her.

Although Gellhorn was involved in WWII, she wasn't on the ground with  American soldiers like Jacob Levy, the protagonist of  Point of No Return.  Yet as an American of assimilated Jewish background herself, she understood him.  Jacob Levy was brought up without religion.  His name remained as the only identifying marker of his Jewishness.   Many American Jews are completely secular and will find him very relatable.  I also found him sympathetic even though my upbringing was not similar.   I have known people like him who didn't  feel like they were part of the Jewish community.  They primarily identified with being Americans.   That's why Jacob Levy volunteered for WWII.  He wanted to serve his country.   My uncles, who came from a more religiously observant Jewish background, felt the same way.   They both fought in WWII.  One of them survived the Battle of the Bulge as Jacob Levy did.   This particular uncle never told war stories, so I never knew what the Battle of the Bulge was like for him.  After reading this book, I think I know why he never talked about it.   Gellhorn's depiction of that battle was visceral.  It had nothing in common with a Hollywood movie.

Jacob Levy had what he obviously thought was a romance with a woman.  It felt very significant to him, but it seemed to be largely based in fantasy.   I thought they had no common ground.  There is a myth that the attraction of opposites is a successful formula for a good relationship.   It has always seemed to me that such an attraction is like a soap bubble, and that a lasting relationship is built on commonalities.  Since this is a literary novel rather than a romance,  Gellhorn doesn't provide a happily ever after ending.   It's my hope that Jacob eventually found something more durable to sustain him.

The resolution of  Point of No Return is extremely powerful.   Gellhorn tells us in the Afterword that the reason she wrote the book was to exorcise what she saw at the concentration camp in Dachau soon after its liberation.   When she wrote the book so soon after that event, it must have felt like a raw wound.   Seeing a concentration camp after it had ceased operations can never be equivalent to the trauma of a survivor of the camp, but I imagine that it would still leave a mark on someone's soul.   She wanted Jacob Levy to be the keeper of that memory.   I don't imagine that you ever really can erase such images.  In 1948, Jacob Levy probably was a proxy for all those Americans who never thought such things were possible.   There may be current readers who optimistically believe that humanity can change for the better, and that we aren't a violent species.  If you are one them, reading this book to the end may engender some doubts about the perfectibility of humankind.  This is not the sort of novel that leaves illusions intact.


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