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Book Review: The Source, by James Michener

In the introduction to the 2013 reprint of James Michener’s The Source, Steve Berry (an author himself), explains why he’s grateful that Michener wrote most of his novels before the Internet age narrowed our collective interest in “thousand-page epics” involving “hundreds of characters.” Essentially, Berry is suggesting that today’s conditions don’t allow writers to make ‘em like they used to.

Cover of The Source, by James Michener.

But after my second read of The Source, I think it’s fair to ask how many authors ever crafted fiction like Michener.

Many of his works were generational tales that featured a place—like Hawaii or South Africa—and worked through its chronology by loosely following a single family’s evolution through the centuries. Characters came and went, starring in their own novella-length chapter before fading into memory; rather than focusing on a single protagonist, Michener foregrounded a region’s history. His scope was immense.

But one of the reasons I like The Source so much is that it starts by setting up a frame story: in 1964, an international team of archaeologists begin excavating the “tell” of Makor, a mound that marks a former node of civilization in the Middle East. The tell is barren, but its seventy-one-foot height represents “the patiently accumulated residue of one abandoned settlement after another, each resting upon the ruins of its predecessor.” The team takes two cross-sections of this cultural lineage by digging a pair of trenches and identifying fifteen layers of interest, the first stretching to prehistoric times and the last dating to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. In each layer, the archaeologists unearth an artifact that speaks to some of the corresponding era’s ideas and conflicts.

With that narrative scaffolding in place, Michener rewinds to Makor’s origins and proceeds in his usual sequential style, giving us the story behind each artifact and its appearance at the tell—an exploration that also suggests how the settlement’s fortunes (and by extension, those of the larger area) waxed and waned with the flow of time. But the archaeologists still have a role to play. Many of the flashbacks are interspersed with the excavators’ debates, conversations that Michener uses to surface key issues. For example, at one point, the leader of the dig reflects on “the struggles [another archaeologist] had summarized: Egypt versus Babylonia; Greece crashing against Persia; Rome vanquishing the east; Crusader fighting infidel; and finally Jew battling Arab. ‘All right,’ he conceded, ‘this is where violence met violence. What am I supposed to conclude?’”

Michener offers a number of theories, many of them about religion. In the first few chapters, he proposes that early humans’ adoption of agriculture initiated a spiritual transition. As hunter-gatherers, they’d likely conceived of the metaphysical in terms of an “I-It” relationship, with people representing the “I” while the forces of nature (wind, fire, etc.) represented a collective, impersonal “It.” But once men and women turned to farming and became reliant on regular rainfall to nourish their crops, they may have tried to articulate a more intimate connection in times of need, such as instances of flood or drought. “This,” Michener speculates at one point, “was the first fumbling effort to evoke the I-You relationship—‘I am begging You, my partner, for mercy’—under which society would henceforth live, until the multitude of gods would become more real than sentient human beings.”

From there, Michener illustrates a potential progression from polytheism to monotheism by centering the Jewish experience. (Characters nearer the beginning of the book’s timeline worship deities like Melak, Baal, and Astarte; characters in the latter chapters follow “various Els—the Elohims, the Elyons and the El-Shaddais” which eventually are “happily merged into the great successor,” i.e., Yahweh, or God.) Michener also relates—in often horrific detail—how the Hebrew peoples were persecuted through the ages. Makor is periodically “stripped of Jews” as various conquerors enslave or slaughter those who refuse to bend the knee. Some portions of the book range further afield and describe how European countries heaped additional indignities on their Jewish inhabitants, including forcing them to live in ghettos and participate in competitions that demeaned their faith.

But one of The Source’s most overt themes is that the Jewish faith survived because of the rigid strictures it developed. Several chapters repeat this argument in various forms, including a passage midway through the novel that depicts a group of rabbis engaged in the formative debates that would give rise to the text known as the Talmud. “… what the rabbis were doing, in part consciously and in part unconsciously, was to create a body of law that would bind the Jews together as they went into exile to the Diaspora. Without a homeland the Jews would live within their law and become a nation mightier than those which had oppressed them.”

Yet as much as Michener seems to respect this resilience, he doesn’t lionize its source. Other chapters key on the often-unjust applications of the Talmud’s many rules. One boy is denied access to the Jewish congregation because he was born a bastard; a widow is told she must marry her rapist because tradition demands it. Many characters acknowledge the absurdity of these judgments, but few reject them outright. “I’m a Jew,” one says near the end of The Source, “and I come from a most ancient people with most ancient laws.” Michener’s contention seems to be that this history is both Judaism’s enduring strength and a built-in constraint that prevented the religion from cultivating the wider audience of its primary successors (Christianity and Islam).

I can’t speak to the scholarship behind all this, although I imagine some of it (inevitably) hasn’t aged well since Michener published The Source in 1965. The book definitely feels like an artifact in other ways, though. The point-of-view characters skew male, their female counterparts are almost always described in terms of the shapeliness of their figures, and the only woman among the senior archaeologists is generally treated as a prize to be won. (Although to be fair, Michener toys with some of this sexism by having one of his male archaeologists assume it must have been a man who “first brought wheat into cultivation” and tamed “a wild dog,” while in the accompanying flashback, The Source shows these seminal acts being carried out by a woman. Here, Michener is acknowledging his character’s male gaze; elsewhere, he seems unaware of his own.)

But I enjoyed how the frame story ties everything together. Two of the archaeologists are Jewish and one is Muslim. All of them fought in the Arab-Israeli War, living out the historic tensions explored in earlier chapters. One of these characters is also a distant relative of the first flashback’s cave-dwelling protagonist. These throughlines give the interludes at the excavation an additional weight; of the many stories in The Source, those that take place during the dig are my favorite.

Michener is also clear-eyed about the obstacles facing modern Israel, particularly its internal conflicts. “Israel’s custodianship of people, of human rights, is going to be spectacular,” one of the Jewish archaeologists proclaims during an after-hours conversation. “I want a state which preaches morality to practice it,” the Muslim archaeologist counters in another. In the latter exchange, they’re discussing whether and how to welcome back Palestinian Arab refugees who fled during the fighting in 1948. Present-day corollaries include the ongoing Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip and the resulting human rights crisis.

Michener doesn’t offer any quick fixes. But if he were alive today—and his publisher ignored prevailing trends toward brevity and approved an even longer version of The Source—I’d love to read an extra chapter or two that extended the book’s analysis into the 21rst century. That’d likely swell the page count to 1,600 or more, making for the type of sweeping epic only Michener could write. But the current version already stands at a towering 1,400 pages; like many of the other novels in his bibliography, The Source is a remarkable—and practically inimitable—work of historical fiction.

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Cover of the historical fantasy novel Witch in the White City, by Nick Wisseman.

Millions of visitors. Thousands of exhibits. One fiendish killer.

Neva’s goals at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago are simple. Enjoy the spectacle—perhaps the greatest the United States has ever put on. (The world’s fair to end all world’s fairs!) Perform in the exposition’s Algerian Theatre to the best of her abilities. And don’t be found out as a witch.

Easy enough … until the morning she looks up in the Theatre and sees strangely marked insects swarming a severed hand in the rafters.

"... a wild ride sure to please lovers of supernatural historical mysteries." – Publishers Weekly

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