Choosing Life: Two Wartime Novels

By Robin Jacobson. 

In August, Beth El and congregations everywhere will begin reading Devarim (Deuteronomy), the final book of the Torah.  Eventually, we will reach the dramatic moment when Moses exhorts the Israelites: “Choose life – if you and your offspring would live” (Devarim 30:19). What does it mean to “choose life”?

In an experiment earlier this year, Beth El’s book club used this piece of Torah as a lens to analyze the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.  This Jewish lens also works for Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, winner of the United Kingdom’s prestigious Costa Novel Award.  Although neither novel is “Jewish-themed,” both raise provocative questions about the ramifications of “choosing life” or making life-affirming decisions.

All the Light We Cannot See

Light_We_Cannot_SEeAll the Light We Cannot See is a tale of two innocent children caught in the cataclysm of World War II.  Doerr presents the children’s stories separately, although they eventually converge. In one story, Marie-Laure, a blind girl, lives with her widowed father, Daniel, in Paris. Daniel is the master locksmith for the Museum of Natural History, a gifted craftsman, and a devoted father. To help Marie-Laure become independent, despite her blindness, Daniel builds her a miniature scale model of Paris so that she can learn her way around the city (i.e., he “chooses life” for her).

When war erupts, Daniel and Marie-Laure flee to the home of Daniel’s uncle Etienne in the beautiful walled city of Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast. Etienne is a recluse, a shell-shocked World War I veteran who avoids people, the outdoors, and danger. Nonetheless, in a “choose life” moment, his housekeeper shames him into joining the Resistance. She asks, “Don’t you want to be alive before you die?”

The second story in All the Light concerns Werner, a German orphan with a precocious talent for electronics. Werner fears his future; when he turns 15, his orphanage will send him to work in the coal mines where his father died. Werner’s skill in fixing radios saves him from this fate; an impressed German officer recommends him to an elite Nazi school. Yet Werner’s relief at escaping the mines is soon tempered by his growing distaste for the Nazis. At school, and later as a soldier responsible for tracking down Resistance radio operators, Werner witnesses horrific acts. He begins to question his role in the Nazi machine. Werner “chose life” by opting for the Nazis over the mines, but was it a moral life that he chose?

Life After Life

o-LIFE-AFTER-LIFE-KATE-ATKINSON-facebookThe ingenious Life After Life opens with the protagonist, Ursula Todd, shooting Hitler in a Munich café in 1930. Author Kate Atkinson then switches to a scene of Ursula’s birth, in England in 1910. Sadly, the baby girl dies instantly. But, wait – if Ursula dies at birth, how can she grow up to shoot Hitler? A few pages later, we read another version of Ursula’s birth story in which a doctor saves her life. But then, a few years later, Ursula drowns during a family beach vacation. In another version, an artist spots Ursula flailing in the water and rescues her.

As the novel continues through two world wars, there are more forks in Ursula’s road; some paths lead to death and others to life. Ursula retains a vague memory of her alternate lives and gropes for the course of action that will “choose life” for her or her loved ones. Nonetheless, some circumstances are outside her control – a humbling reminder that we can’t fully direct our destiny, even with good choices.