FINDING THE GRAIN by Shulamit Hartal

Translated from the Hebrew by Aloma Halter and Joyce Klein

This is basically a story of the mind, and secondarily a love story. Set in a city in Israel in ….. well, I could never figure out exactly when: the principal figure had a laptop so the nineties? A little later? Her mother was a young girl during the time of the holocaust, and her husband, who was bit older than she lived through those times in Poland. Hard to say exactly.

Chani, in her late fifties? Sixties? stumbles over a pile of books at the recycling center, which had been left on the ground. They were a course in “Psychology in Education”, published by the Open University. She breaks her ankle, but insists on bringing the books to the ER with her, she didn’t want to lose them.   In her diary,  she says

All of a sudden, I became aware of the possibility that there is a lot in me that is way below the surface, and that powers that I don’t understand are at work in me — against me. It’s frightening! And along with that discovery came the comforting knowledge that a person has the ability to change.

Confined to her bed for a few days, she begins to read the books, and thus begins her journey inward, to discover her true self. She decides to confine herself to her room while she studies.

She begins a diary of this journey, which is how we learn of her process/progress. Her friend, a psychologist, comes over every day and acts as a listener and prodder, pulling more and more memories out of Chani, forcing Chani to consider the source of some of her emotions, or rather lack of them.

Chani knew her husband since they were ten, although they had not had much to do with each other during their adolescence. Eventually, he returned from his military service and they were married. They were married 36 years, so I guess that makes her in her sixties now.

We learn the story of how Robbie, the husband, was born in the forest in Poland to a young couple escaping the horrors of the Germans as they herded the Jews into ghettos and then into trains to the camps. We learn how he finally made his way to Israel.

But the real story is Chani’s mother, a thoroughly awful person and we learn about the damage she did to her three daughters. It is really a psychology lesson about dependency, fear of abandonment, and how the damage is passed on generation to generation. Her mother often used the expression “Even a blind chicken can sometimes find a grain.” when she had to grudgingly admit her daughter did a correct thing or was right about something, and the title refers to that expression, meaning that even when we stumble around in the dark, we can often stumble upon the truth.

Nothing much happens, action-wise, it is all in the memories that are beginning to surface in the older woman. She is determined, with the help of her psychologist friend, Iris, to reclaim everything and become the whole person she was meant to be.

We learn of the dependence of Robbie on her, and of his own fears of abandonment, despite his outward appearance of calm and control.

Chani suffers an embolism, and dies, a sudden thing that shatters all the family. She was also a well known sculptress, so her passing affected many of her students, contemporaries, and admirers. Her shiva was packed with people. Her granddaughter, Yif’a, rummaging through a kitchen drawer for a knife, found a bunch of pages, and it was the diary. She pulls it out and begins reading. The book alternates diary entries in bold type with current activities in normal type.

The author, Shulamit Hartal, was herself a talented sculptress, and the book is based on autobiographical elements of her own life. She passed away several years ago.

I really liked this book. The characters are wonderful, and the style and structure of the book is impressive — smooth and compelling.

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