Monday, October 31, 2011

Wherever You Go Read-along: Part 2 (Pages 126-253)

Wherever You Go by Joan LeegantWelcome to the second and final discussion of Wherever You Go by Joan Leegant, which is part of the read-along I’m co-hosting with Carrie at Books and Movies. If you missed them, please go back and read the part 1 discussion and Joan’s guest post. Also, don’t forget to submit your questions for Joan to Carrie as soon as possible at nnjmom at yahoo dot com. Joan will be answering these questions on Carrie’s blog on November 5.

I apologize for the delay in posting this discussion. I mismanaged my time and then got stuck in the crazy snowstorm battering the Northeastern United States—I just got home last night and was too exhausted to finish this post before today. Anyway, without further ado, here are some of my thoughts...

Note that the rest of this post contains major spoilers!

I was struck by the many parallels in Aaron and Mark’s stories: they were both lost as young men; they both had very difficult relationships with their fathers; they both turned to religion to save themselves. They even both changed their hair to mark turning points in their lives: Aaron shaves his head to show his commitment to Adamah; while Mark shaves off his beard to signify his loss of faith. And yet, their journeys go in very different directions (even as the two men meet): Mark’s leads him towards an opening up of possibilities, a chance to start again, meaningful work and love, whereas Aaron’s leads to death and despair. (Considering that he wasn’t going to be punished in any traditional sense for his crime, I can’t think of a much worse fate for Aaron that to have to remain under his parents’ supervision indefinitely.) The obvious difference between their journeys is the direction they are going in during the course of the book: Mark moves away from rigid religious views (he doesn’t, in fact, completely lose his faith, but rather loosens his grip on specific rituals of faith), which leads directly to greater happiness, whereas Aaron’s views become more fanatical—the God he professes to believes in is “the fiery God of the Hebrews who . . . drowned the Egyptians and killed all their firstborn and incinerated the priests of Baal and ordered the slaughter of thousands whenever they got in the Israelites’ way” (p. 85). Did you notice this too? What are your thoughts about this? What did you think of what happened to Aaron?

I was initially a bit disappointed that we didn’t get to find out more about Dena and what motivated her choices, but in the end, I think this really worked in the context of this novel: the reader doesn’t find out more because Yona doesn’t (which totally makes sense). However, I’m curious: Why do you think that Dena did what Yona asked her to, even though Dena refused to forgive her sister? I think Dena couldn’t forgive Yona without reassessing some of her own life choices; however, something of what Yona said got through. (And who knows what Dena will do in the future: maybe she will eventually soften her position and forgive her sister.) What are your thoughts about this?

Finally, my favourite aspect of the novel was how Joan used the quote from the Talmud, Whoever saves one life, it’s as if he’s saved an entire world. (An alternate translation is He who saves one life saves the world entire.) This is the argument Yona uses to convince her sister to save Mark Greengrass, and it’s also the explanation the doctor gives to Mark’s parents for why he (Mark) hadn’t run from the explosion (since Mark can’t remember). This moved me to tears: Because how often does a person have the opportunity to save an entire world? (p. 252).

There is so much more I could say about this book, but I’ll stop here for now. Let me know what you thought in the comments (about my questions or any other aspect of the story), and I’ll be sure to comment back!


  1. You've brought up so many great points for discussion! I was definitely struck by the parallel between Aaron's and Mark's stories, and I thought it especially interesting that they both had dysfunctional relationships with their fathers. That way, the radical, violent choice that Aaron makes can't be simplified into "well, he has Daddy issues" - because Mark had the same issues and made very different choices. That was a an interesting choice on the part of the author - to show that people's choices can't always be boiled down to one or two contributing factors.

    I completely agree with your assessment of Dena's choice to remain estranged from Yona. I think she moved into that radical lifestyle as a reaction to the betrayal by Yona and her boyfriend - and needs her continued bitterness to keep her in that lifestyle. Otherwise, she would have to question her choices, her marriage, the way she is raising her children, etc.

    I really enjoyed the end of the book - although it made me curious as to what Aaron's future would be.

  2. Great catch noticing the parallels in both Mark and Aaron symbolically losing hair. I wonder if we can tie that further into Hebrew culture? The most obvious reference would be Samson, who lost his strength when Delilah cut his hair. We can maybe apply this to Aaron, who cuts his own hair and loses his rational-thinking (not as a direct correlation, of course, but shaving his head is a symbol of becoming a member of Adamah). Mark's is a bit more obvious - the Hebrew scriptures are full of edicts not to cut your hair. Like many of the ancient Hebrew customs, long hair was about distinction - an "us" versus "them" mentality. By shaving his beard, Mark is self-identifying against Judaism - an outward symbol of his inner transformation. Hebrew scriptures also use "the image of hair removal as a sign of mourning in Jer 7:29 and Ezekiel 5, where shaving is a sign of loss of consecration, of distance from God because of transgression and consequent punishment" (see Susan Niditch's work on this topic).

  3. I agree with Carrie's point that choices are the essential aspect of the story. I hate it when people use what has happened to them as an excuse for their behavior. Horrible things happen to people everyday, but you can choose to rise above that or you can use it as an excuse. It was good to see how two people made such different choices despite similar circumstances.

    I think that Aaron picked out only the Biblical elements that supported his particular belief system at that time and used those examples to support what he was doing.

    I also wish we knew a bit more about Dena, but I think seeing her only from Yona's POV was powerful in its own way.

  4. I wondered about Dena's change of heart too. I think it was very hard for her to forgive Yona and maybe she needed more time and to be away from Yona whilst she thought over the situation. She comes over as a every black and white character but also as a fair person and that is how I understood her decision.

    I was stuck more by the contrast between Mark and Aaron than by their similarities. Mark, though is older and as such has had time to mature whereas Aaron is still very immature. What the future holds for him is left open, but what a prospect - living with a father who regretted he had ever been born!

  5. Carrie, that's a good point about the differences between Mark and Aaron: I hadn't really thought of it that way. The author definitely shows that the same type of difficult childhood doesn't lead inevitably to the same choices in adulthood.

    My feeling about Dena is that she will continue to soften her position towards her sister as her children grow older, especially given that one of her daughters was particularly drawn to Yona. (I could imagine that that daughter will move away from her parents' rigid position and maybe even to the U.S.!)

  6. Julie, thanks for your thoughts on the symbolism of hair cutting in Hebrew culture! I wasn't aware of hair removal as being a sign of mourning, but that makes a lot of sense to me in this context. Interesting link too!

  7. Melissa, I agree that Aaron picked out the Biblical elements that suited him -- I found his view that the "true God" had been "neutered and sanitized for ... tender American ears" (p. 84) both fascinating and repellent. (I thought it was such an interesting passage, such a great insight into his thinking, however distorted that thinking was.)

  8. Margaret, it was hard to get a beat on Dena, since she basically refused to communicate with her sister (except for that one scene where they go at each other: I felt so proud of Yona for standing up to her!). But yes, she struck me as a fair person too.

    I couldn't help feeling sorry for Aaron on account of what his father said: I couldn't imagine a much worse fate for him (other than prison or death, obviously). His father was so attached to his writing and now was forbidden from writing, basically, because of his son, whom he considered useless to begin with. I can't imagine that Aaron will ever recover from this.

  9. Avis - I also had a hard time figuring Dena out- as someone with three sisters, I simply can't imagine choosing to cut myself off from one of them for that long!