Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
James A. Michener had a rather peculiar specialty as an author, focusing on rather lengthy historical novels profoundly focusing on a specific geographical location. The Source, originally published back in 1965, takes us on a journey thousands of years long through the Holy Land, recounting the origins of Judaism, the rise of the early Hebrews, and all which happened since then until the modern conflict with Palestine.
Table of contents
James A. Michener Begins the Long Excursion
Conflict seems to be inherent to human nature, fallowing virtually every civilization over the course of their history, and it doesn’t seem like it will ever leave us. What’s more, it seems certain points on Earth act as magnets for incessant and bloody struggles, the Holy Land being one of the more prominent ones.
Today, most of us only have a cursory knowledge of its recent past, which is why I believe James A. Michener‘s The Source deserves some more recognition, delving as deep as humanly possibly into its history.
The book is framed in the form of a novel, following an archaeological dig in Israel taking place in modern times (which is to say, the 1960s when this book was first published). The team goes deeper and deeper beneath the soil until they reach a layer of bedrock, and from there on out we are treated to the development of Judaism over the course of thousands of years, right from the point of its genesis up until modern times.
The story largely focuses on the human experience of the people who have inhabited the same little plot of land on our planet for nearly innumerable generations, detailing the evolution of their culture, the challenges they had to face, the philosophies they had to debate, and the joys they all celebrated. We bear witness to the cycle of life and death, of destruction and creation which defines the Holy Land, and the seemingly everlasting path of suffering and near-extinction the Hebrew people have been treading since their birth.
The Incomparable Profoundness of The Source
First things first, The Source definitely isn’t your typical novel you can sit down and read in an afternoon or two, with the paperback edition being just over 1100 pages-long. It’s not an easy read by any means either, being the kind of book you need to be slower and more methodical with, often times re-reading some passages to ensure they’ve been absorbed. In other words, this novel requires a good deal of effort and patience to get through (although I’m sure most of us have the time for it these days), so do be warned going forward.
We seek God so earnestly, Eliav reflected, not to find Him but to discover ourselves.― James A. Michener, The Source
With this out of the way, I can’t help but begin by commending this novel on the unprecedented depth with which it explores the history of Judaism. I cannot begin to imagine the amount of research Michener must have done to write up this book, and I would almost classify it as an encyclopedia if it wasn’t a novel.
Pretty much every single little detail you could imagine wanting to know about the people living back in those times is answered before you can even think about; from their clothes and daily routines to their religious and social customs, I can’t think of a stone left unturned. I will admit the sheer amount of information does become tedious at certain points, but I believe it is all very much necessary in the end to paint a complete picture of the Jewish people, one anyone would be capable of understanding.
I think, among many other things, the author captured exceptionally-well the state of constant struggle the Jewish people were in, helping many of us understanding something we thankfully won’t experience ourselves in our lifetime.
An Explanation of Israel
So far, the things I’ve written might lead you to wonder how exactly The Source differs from a very well-written history book, and let me assure you, this has much more than a detailed recounting of the past. Michener often puts his focus on people and tries to depict their inner worlds with as much accuracy and descriptive vocabulary as he can.
A man is never old if he can still be moved emotionally by a woman of his own age.― James A. Michener, The Source
There is some real entertainment value in following their many stories, largely stemming from the fact the author would much rather show us the history happening, rather than talking about it from the side. Rather than being outside observers, we are drawn as inside companions to the characters we are presented with.
Additionally, I felt there was a very real and concrete purpose to this novel, which was to explain the collective mentality of Israel, and the reason they appear as they do to the rest of the world. It seems to me there are many who would criticize the country for its extremely defensive predisposition and the sternness with which its government tends to act.
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While I’m certainly not going to get into a debate here about who is right or wrong on this matter (as usual, the answer probably lies somewhere in a grey zone), Michener provides a fairly compelling explanation for why things are the way they are. He puts into perspective the immense, thousands of years-long struggle rife with exile and genocide the Hebrew people went through in order to form their own nation, and in my opinion, gives the best explanation of the country I’ve read to date.
The Final Verdict
The Source by James A. Michener is, in my humble opinion, the most all-encompassing, detailed, and profound exploration of Judaism and the Hebrew people I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. It’s definitely not a fast nor easy read, but it’s more than worth all the effort for not only the amount of historical knowledge it gives, but also the amount of insight into the modern nation of Israel and its people. If Judaism and the history of its people are topics of interest for you, then I believe this book is simply a must for your collection.
James Albert Michener
(February 3, 1907 – October 16, 1997)
James Albert Michener was an American author who wrote many fictional works, the majority of them being lengthy family sagas taking place in specific places around the world, including Caravans, Sayonara, The Covenant and The Source.
In 1948 he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Tales of the South Pacific, and he also published some non-fiction works, including The World is my Home and Sports in America.