‘Sadness is a White Bird,” the debut novel from Israeli American author Moriel Rothman-Zecher is a swift coming-of-age story centered on the complicated relationship that develops when an enlisted IDF soldier falls in love with a Palestine woman.
For years Jonathan (Yonatan) dreamed of becoming a paratrooper for the Israeli army and defending the country his grandfather helped establish. So when his family returns to Israel from the United States just before his 18th birthday, it seems Jonathan’s path is set — that is until he befriends twin brother and sister Laith and Nimreen, Palestine siblings who would become his closest friends — and sister Nimreen his first love.
And while the three remain optimistic about their friendship, their heartfelt, pot-fueled bubble is routinely popped by the everyday challenges that come from simply being together: crossing check points, speaking with strangers, and sharing stories of family history.
“I tricked myself into believing that if I kept the worlds separate, then I’d never have to choose between the two,” Jonathan reflected. “Maybe I hoped that if I stepped right, mindful not to breathe too hard, then I could stay welcome in both worlds forever, Yonatan the Border Crosser, Jonathan the Brave.”
The novel’s structure nicely mimics the complicated divide Jonathan experiences, as every other chapter is focused on a different half of himself: one chapter to the camaraderie and solitary he feels with his platoon, the next chapter to the friendship and deep conversations shared with Laith and Nimreen. The result is a dizzying, heartbreaking juxtaposition.
The story comes to a head on July 25, 2006, the day Jonathan’s platoon is sent to monitor a demonstration that Laith and Nimreen may or may not be attending. Jonathan’s actions that day have far-reaching consequences that both set the novel in motion and lead to its distressing conclusion.
A novel as rich and complicated as war — and peace — “Sadness is a White Bird” is a bold debut.