“The Source” by James Michener is one of my all-time favorites; it’s a book I go back to after years and years and it embraces me like an old friend who still has more tales to tell, despite my having visited it many times previously! It’s one of my personal bibles and stands up there with my absolute devotion for the likes of Pride and Prejudice, East of Eden and To Kill a Mockingbird. While one can debate whether its literary significance is as profound as the other titles that I listed, there can be no denying that the book does come back again and again with some hard-hitting questions, asking us to question what do we mean when we refer to our “God”, the right and wrongs and the journey of two races born of the same land, caught in a quest of independence over 2000 years.
The Source begins with John Cullinane arriving at Makor, an archeological site in Israel to begin digging ostensibly for a Crusader’s castle but actually to find the very foundation of Makor which in old Hebrew means Source. He is joined here by Dr. Vered Bar-EL, Dr. Ilan Eliav and Jamail Tabari. As the excavations get underway, John tries to better understand the history of Jews and Israel and how both could not be taken as synonymous. With the archeologists finding artifacts after artifacts, the novel reverts through the earliest mankind when the cavemen walked on Makor and the family of Ur began a more settled existence with farms and house of mud replacing hunting and caves. As the family of Ur begins to gain more and more success in their endeavors whether its improvement of crops or weapons, the beginning of the concept of “God” and forces that are beyond man’s control start to take root in the family of Ur, thus beginning not only the way of live that would later evolve to modern world but also the concept of religion and fate, that is to grip mankind’s consciousness forever. The novel, in true Michener style, then moves forward by a couple of centuries and each chapter touches upon some of the greatest event in the history of the region, involving the Hebrews, the Cannans and later the Jews, Christians and Arabs – whether it’s the cult of El Shaddai, in the Bronze age or, the deportation of Jews to Babylon, the rule of King David and Herod, the Muslim conquest and the Crusade and finally the in twilight of the Ottoman Empire. All through the ages, the events are intertwined into the story of family of Ur and his descendants and interplay with the present day and the artifacts that are discovered at the site. The novel takes a sweeping look at the rise and fall of fortunes of the family of Ur as they struggled, converted, dispersed and again came together in land of Makor.
To begin with it is a powerful story – in just over 1100 pages, Michener tries to tell the history of the torn land of Palestine/Israel from the point of view of the common man who lived through various ages of cathartic and tumultuous change. The book tries to explain Jewish history and at the same time clearly enunciate that to see Israel through the Jewish prism alone is a mistake, since this land has always been shared by the “Other” – Canaanites, Romans, Christians and Muslims. It is the blending of the two cultures that make the land so special and that is one of main thrusts of the tale. Besides being a sweeping historical saga, it also a very good yarn; each chapter is a complete capsule in itself that tell a gripping tale of not only religion but of everyday men and women, of their courage which may be overt or concealed and the choices they have to make, even the harshest ones for the greater good. The book shows men and women in all their glory, strength, and caprice and constantly touches upon the infinite ability of men to survive even when all hope is gone. What is perhaps an absolute marvel and a characteristic that goes to show the kind of caliber Michener had as a writer is the lack of judgment despite all the follies and failures of all the religions and cultures and the men and women, the book is written with great empathy and understanding – never pointing finger and always showing the white, black and the grey shades of lives as is, without any embellishments. Written in simple language, it is a massive read with several references to Jewish philosophy and a wholly new perspective on the Arab history during the crusades. Despite its volume, it is an easy read, because the tale just grips you right at the start and never lets you go.
If I sound like lunatic ranting on, read the book and you will know what I mean!