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Davita's Harp (1996)

Davita's Harp (1996)

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3.94 of 5 Votes: 1
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0449911837 (ISBN13: 9780449911839)
ballantine books

About book Davita's Harp (1996)

Potok's use of recurrent images borders on overt symbolism, and yet retains an internal coherence beyond that of religious iconography or surrealist leaps by having his narrators tell you exactly what the images mean. This is probably what makes Davita's Harp a childrens' book, even thought it explicitly and graphically addresses child abuse, rape, mutilation, murder, and warfare. A 'story within a story' conceit allows the close, first-person narrator to recall images that her storyteller friend had introduced, and to subsequently adopt that adroit identification with non-sentient creatures in later crises. While I tend to distrust such happy endings as this one - Potok's pace shifts from near-languid observation of nervous breakdown to a self-consciously mute record of marriage and conversion - the range of strategies and stances that his characters employ make this book a continual favorite.We read narration mainly through the eyes of Ilana Davita, the precocious daughter of Communist parents in 1930s Brooklyn. Her characteristic narrative stance is that of one who has recently experienced the events, and yet still can't recall the over-arching context of the earliest ones (only isolated details, incidents, and gestures); part of the building drama comes in watching this character reconstruct her memories through the evidence that she later gained, where what-must-have-happened lies between the lines of what's actually remembered. The storyteller character (Jakob, an early lover of Davita's mother) comes for extended visits to the family, where he tells Davita stories of horses and birds with a melancholy, secretive personality mirroring his own. Much of the joy in this book emerges in watching the Davita character question these stories and eventually make her own meaning out of them. Potok's deliberate pace, where the thoughts and consequences of one step can occupy two pages, also allows for us to guess the hidden implications that Davita may not explicitly divine - especially as he returns to these questions at various points in the story; the differing juxtapositions of these divinations - where what-Davita-guesses meets up with different parts of what-we-guess - can make repeated readings of this book a rewarding exercises.Repeat readings can make Potok's machinations more clear - and, while at times the layers of suggestion and emphasis offer a pleasure that the narrator herself shares (often while thinking of Jakob's stories or reading his letters), at some points the intent of Potok's elisions become less clear. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, we readers are at times unaware of what's at stake in a scene. When Davita's mother remarries, the narrator and a secondary character "look at each other shyly, not sure what to say." I'd like to think that Potok does this on purpose - steps back from the story to allow us to step in - especially since, at another point in that chapter, Davita and that same character communicate their happiness in a small series of glances, smiles, and gestures. This is such a shift from the previous pattern of foreshadow-action-exposition, though, that I'm left a little confused.Such shifts may very well be deliberate, intended to allow us to exercise the skills that Davita has displayed. It may mark, in this instance, an example of the character's maturation. Also, it may be evidence of Potok's own awareness of his project's range of concerns and interests; regarding an earlier novel's marriage, in fact, his narrator concluded that "In some instances, it is best to either say very much about a subject, or to say very little at all." Still, the suddenness of the shift in Davita's degree of attention towards her mother (which was previously nuanced, complicated, and subtle) here seems to become merely a touchstone for the mother character's further conversion to orthodox judaism. This is where I as a reader reach the boundary of my own comprehension.

Ilana Davita Chandal, the daughter of a nonbelieving Jewish mother and nonbelieving Christian father grows up in New York in the years before (and during) WWII. Both of her parents are active radicals. Her life is changed when her reporter father goes to Spain to write on the Civil War there. As she asks questions and searches for what to believe, she turns to the Jewish faith. The title comes from a wooden harp which hangs on the door everywhere they live. The harp sings whenever the door is opened or closed. I learned some history I didn't know by reading this. I had not been aware at all of the Spanish civil war and found myself reading information on the internet to go along with reading the novel. I think that's a good thing when a book widens your base of knowledge. While this was good in terms of getting inside the experiences of a girl growing up in that time period, I wish that more had been done with her faith search. She begins attending Sabbath services out of curiosity, following a Jewish neighbor and then goes back each week because she likes the singing. Next thing you know, she's attending Jewish school and is actively seeking to keep the commandments. Much is said at various points about events which leave lasting impressions on her, but not how faith impacted her. I had thought it might. Still, a good book and a look into the Jewish community in Brooklyn in the '30's and '40's.

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Another great book by Chaim Potok. His novels let you enter into worlds that are your own, yet in the past. Ha! Maybe its too early to write good sentences. In this book you enter into a family where the mother is a Marx scholar and part of the communist party in America around 1930; the father is a journalist who is driven to cover union battles (later you find out this comes out of seeing first hand how loggers were treated in the story of Centralia (of course I had to look that up and you should too)). With them you watch as Franco mounts his war on the republic and ultimately the father dies in the bombing of Guernico. You also watch the horror that comes when Stalin makes agreement with Hitler and the mom must face that Stalin isn't the leader she hoped for.And all this is really just backdrop for the real central story, which is of Davita, a little girl who is the main character and who you see this world through and ultimately she reaches out to the orthodox Jews who are around and must struggle with what it is like to be a female in this world. So much more to say and recommend about this book and this author.

I've been reading the novels of Chaim Potok for ages but one gets tired of The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev.After sepnding quite a bit of time on the latest volume of Caro's massive biography of LBJ I decided it was time for a little pleasure reading. I had fond memories of Potok's Davita's Harp which I first read when it was published in 1985. I located a used copy and dug in. I was not disappointed.It is a well written rather melancholy story of a young woman growing up in the 30's. Her mother was born Jewish and is an immigrant from Poland and her father is from a wealthy New England Christian family. The complex plot involves the parents' devotion to Communism, the Spanish Civil War, the mother's old friends and lovers and a subplot involving one of these friends (and possibly lovers) who is visiting the family from Europe and because of his Communist speaking engagements is subsequently deported. To a small extent is it also a novel that involves women's liberation. When I fist read the novel I learned it was Potok's only novel with a female protagonist. I later read in his obituary in "The Times" that it was the last time he used such a character.No more. I don't want to spoil it for you but as you can see I've given it four stars and might add that I thoroughly enjoyed it.PS Not know what a door harp is? In 1985 there was no Google. Now it's quite easy to find out.
—Alvin Steingold

Based on my previous experience with the work of Chaim Potok, I knew that Davita's Harp would involve a young person's experience with Judaism. What I didn't expect was the clash of identities invoked in a story of a seemingly, at least at first, naive pre-adolescent girl. Ilana Davita's parents were ardent irreligious Communists, her father's family were stony capitalists from New Englander (though his sister was a Christian nurse), her mother's parents were orthodox Jews. Not only that, but the mileau of pre-WWII New York including old friend's were all over the spectrum. But identity politics was only one of the distinctive notes in Davita's Harp. Though it was easy to inhale Chaim Potok's smooth prose quickly, the melancholy tones added the right pace to nearly 400-page book. Naturally, Ilana Davita was not like the other kids her age. What with her parent's polemical worldviews which led indirectly to her father's death (a spoiler from which no harm will come), and everything else, the girl was dragged into adulthood -- all events preceding a nervous breakdown. One may conclude that this is enough for a plot, but Chaim Potok was not so simple and Ilana Davita's life goes on. Throughout the story, she is exploring, from her solitary trips to the local synagogue to her insightful questions, she is nothing if not curious. As with much of YA lit these days, Davita's Harp (published in 1985) has all the issues covered: death, sexism, puberty, nervous breakdown, religion, politics (alas, no drugs). Not of them, however, define the book. Davita's Harp is not an "issue" book, it is a story in every sense of the word, carrying with it recurrent images like a small door harp, poetic prose, and a plot full of emotional depth that is difficult to shake off. This is the type of novel that show us why we read stories.
—Oleg Kagan

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