Valley of Strength is a very fine historical novel by Israeli writer Shulamit Lapid, about the settlement of pre-state Israel. Set at the end of the 19th century and focusing on a 16-year-old girl named Fania, it tracks the growth of a settlement at Gai Oni, later called Rosh Pinnah, and details the hardships and struggles of the settlers.
Fania is a survivor of pogroms in Ukraine, and comes to Palestine to live with her out-of-wedlock child, her brother and her husband, Yehiel, a slightly older widower and father who marries her out of charity. The two develop a real affection for each other as Fania grows in confidence and independence. Determined to make a better life for herself and her nascent family, she gets involved in business and diplomacy and immerses herself in the pioneer life, often struggling to make her voice heard as a woman in this harsh landscape:
Of all the things said, what seared her memory was not the argument with Eleazar, but words casually spoken by the doctor- "Nine Biluists in Gedera, and one woman." As if she isn't a person! Nine human beings and something else. A goat, a mule, a woman...This woman must be stronger than her comrades, since she needs greater powers of body and spirit than those of the men if she is to be capable of making a living with them in isolation.I found Valley of Strength to be a beautifully written literary novel with a strong voice, appealing characters and a story I could invest in. It's moving and heartbreaking, devastating and hopeful. I loved Fania and Yehiel and rooted for their relationship to blossom and for their family to succeed. I loved Fania's courage and tenacity as she navigates a nearly impossible situation. And I enjoyed reading about life in pre-state Israel; scenes of recent immigrants digging up the rocks in the soil and praying for rain resonated for me with American frontier memoirs. A lovely, unforgettable book.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.
As a side note, anyone interested in translations of Israeli and other Jewish literature should keep an eye on The Toby Press and their series of these books. They are published in high quality hardcover editions with beautiful cover art and paper.