I always have an extra amount of respect for an author who treats his/her reader as an intelligent being, who does not pound a heavy-handed agenda into the reader’s head, but presents a “buffet” of ideas, if you will, that the reader can choose from and decide which is right or wrong. At the very least, allowing the reader to choose the idea or philosophy with which he/she is most comfortable. (Right or wrong is so often subjective.)
Chaim Potok does this in his brilliant novel, The Chosen. The backdrop is different sects in Judaism at the end of World War II. And, unlike the previous book I reviewed here that was about a mother/daughter relationship, The Chosen looks deeply into father/son relationships. But it does more than that. It puts two teenage boys together in an unlikely way and poses many questions:
- Who is being raised the right way by his father? (Is there a right way?)
- Who is “the chosen?” (And…chosen for what?)
- Are we born with a soul? Or is it something that grows within us by the choices we make?
- And, when it comes to being devout in religion, how much is too much?
Leaving the reader pondering all of these questions (and more) is, in my opinion, the mark of high-quality writing. Why? Because Life rarely ties things up in a neat little package.
While getting more invested in the story, I started to think of other great books that have two male protagonists who are very different, brought together in odd circumstances and who forge a deep friendship or a bond that is created out of curiosity for one another. After brainstorming, I realized there are many:
- A Separate Peace, by Jon Knowles (Which takes place during the same time period as The Chosen. It’s been years since I’ve read it, and I’m currently listening to the audio version.)
- The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Bridehead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
- The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
Strangely, as many books as there are with these types of characters, there is no specific genre name given to them–and there should be–because they are unique types of stories.
The two in The Chosen are Reuven Malter (modern Orthodox) and Danny Saunders (Hasidic,) brought together, ironically, by a baseball game, the all-American sport. If you created a Venn diagram on these two boys it would be fascinating, because they have much in common. Their differences, however, are what drive the story forward, and their respective fathers are the heightened versions of those differences.
Chaim Potok does a marvelous job of bringing both sets of fathers and sons to life. Their influences, emotions, thoughts, victories, and defeats all feel very authentic. Whether for a book club, a class discussion, or individual enlightenment, The Chosen is worth your time.