In his signature style of grand storytelling, James A. Michener transports us back thousands of years to the Holy Land. Through the discoveries of modern archaeologists excavating the site of Tell Makor, Michener vividly re-creates life in an ancient city and traces the profound history of the Jewish people--from the persecution of the early Hebrews, the rise of Christianity, and the Crusades to the founding of Israel and the modern conflict in the Middle East. An epic tale of love, strength, and faith, The Source is a richly written saga that encompasses the history of Western civilization and the great religious and cultural ideas that have shaped our world. Praise for The Source "Fascinating . . . stunning . . . [a] wonderful rampage through history . . . Biblical history, as seen through the eyes of a professor who is puzzled, appalled, delighted, enriched and impoverished by the spectacle of a land where all men are archeologists."--The New York Times "A sweeping [novel] filled with excitement--pagan ritual, the clash of armies, ancient and modern: the evolving drama of man's faith."--The Philadelphia Inquirer "Magnificent . . . a superlative piece of writing both in scope and technique . . . one of the great books of this generation."--San Francisco Call Bulletin
For me, parts of the book dragged – a lot! No thousand page novel can afford to drag much. Thankfully I found most parts sufficiently readable to keep pressing forward.
The story was less cohesive than the traditional saga I had anticipated. I’m not criticizing it for this reason; simply stating that the story was not what I expected. I was frequently unable to differentiate fact from fiction. I found myself wondering from time to time whether a passage was historically accurate or drawn from Michener’s rich imagination.
Nevertheless, the story has evoked unexpected reflection in me. While reading the novel I found myself listening more intently to the Old Testament readings in church. Michener did an outstanding job of conveying insight into what being a Jew represents. No matter how religious or secular an individual Jew is, he or she inherits the collective history of a singular people. For some reason, I find that both ennobling and humbling. I gained an awareness of the contention between the political state of Israel and the spiritual responsibilities of Judaism. Is an Israeli a patriot first, or a Jew first?
I was appalled and embarrassed by the Catholic Church’s oppression of the Jews during the Middle Ages. (I wanted that part to be fiction knowing full well it was spot on accurate.) As a Christian I bear a personal sense of shame, just as I do a white person towards slavery, or would-be settler towards Native Americans.
While my feelings towards it are ambivalent, the book was worth the time.
This takes up about the first tenth of the novel. The next chapters examine one of the artifacts that were found and illustrated by the archaeologists and the reader is taken back to the time that artifact was created and still in use and we learn the story of the people who used it. The first "flashback" goes back to about 7,000 B.C. where a tribe of "cave men" are living under the rock formation, prospering on the whims of the nearby well. The patriarch of the tribe takes a kidnapped woman from a more advanced tribe (they live in houses!) as a wife and she teaches the hesitant hunter how to plant wheat. Michener kind of dates himself here because we know from recent finds like the Iceman found in the Alps that prehistoric people were more advanced than he gives credit. James really shows his conservative politics in later chapters dealing with the Canaanites and the early Hebrews. I was like "Okay, okay! I get your point; Astarte, fertility goddesses, and feminine worship Bad, as they NATURALLY lead to sacred prostitutes that put strain and jealousy into marriages. I see now, pantheon BAD, naturally they lead to child sacrifice; monotheism GOOD. You don’t need to constantly rub my nose in it." A few chapters seemed almost unbearably stogy and paternalistic, even though they were still interesting because you don’t find a lot of novels written in that time period. Did I mention G-d is a character in many of the chapters? Or at least there’s at least one character in three of four of the chapters whom think He speaks to him. Yeah, wonderful.
I have found it common with Christian writers who write about Jewish subject that they give a lot of lip service but secretly harbor a lot of anti-Semitic attitudes. Where I am in the middle of this book really brought that across. Michener tries to give his main characters as much of a sympathetic light has he can, but he’s constantly emphasizing their negative qualities. Every time they say something or do something he uses terms like the fat Jew, the stubborn Jew, the bald Jew, the bearded Jew, the clumsy Jew, the foolish Jew; on and on. In the chapter where Hellenistic Greeks rule the city this becomes eminently distracting, as he’s always talking about how strong and beautiful the Greek men are. In an explosion of homoerotic exposition the Greeks are constantly wrestling, running, bathing, rubbing hot oil on themselves and lounging around. They are more often naked than not, and James is always comparing their penises one of the circumcised athletes. Grecian Penises Everywhere! Then he goes to great lengths to portray how the leader of the Jewish community is none of these things, how he’s always dressed in heavy robes, has a beard, is sallow-skinned and unathletic. I just had to put the book down for a few weeks. The next chapter on Herod was interesting, but I needed a break. I know it’ll get really interesting when the Crusader castle is built on the ruins of the city-state, but I’ll bide my time.
If anything, the book is an interesting read to gain a new, often unlooked at, history of how the major religions have interacted in the past and what, in 1964, the author thought could be their futures. Thankfully he was wrong about one branch of speculation (future Nazi-like Holocaust), but it is also tragic that his other vision (an Israel where all ethnic/religious groups are treated equally and human rights in a foundation for a nearly Utopic society) has not come to pass. I wonder what the author would say about the current conditions of the area. I'd love to read a contemporary epilogue.
Michener is a master at making the grand sweep of human history accessible, but sometimes in order to do this he simplifies things somewhat. It seems especially noticeable in this book. Some of the characters lack depth. The female characters are particularly one-note. But then again, he has to cover a lot of territory, so...
The human drama seemed somewhat repetitive from section to section, but the historical details were quite fun. I especially liked the story of building the underground tunnel to secure the town's water source. It was obviously based on Hezekiah's tunnel in Jerusalem, an amazing engineering feat given the primitive technology at the time. Other portions borrow from Josephus's writings to provide further authenticity. The history stuff is good. The actual fiction is just okay.
James Michner is like the Michelin Guide to historical events and places. He gives you enough information, in novel form, to set you off looking for the "real story." He does that little slice of land we currently call Israel justice, in terms of covering the vast number of people and religions who have settled there. I first read it as a newly minted fundamentalist Christian, and have come back, with greater appreciation many times.
Michner is a great story teller. His characters tend to be cardboard characters whose main purpose is to keep the plot going, but there are enough plots to keep your interest over 800 pages. And the characters are a bit better in this book than in some others. (Not as good as in The Drifters, but better than Hawaii or Alaska.)
I recommend this for people who want an 800+ page thumbnail sketch of the Holy Land, its peoples and its history.