(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

To the Land of the Cattails describes the two-year journey of Toni Strauss and her son Rudi Strauss from Austria to Dratscincz in Bukovina, a region in the border area between Romania and the Ukraine, now Russia. Related by a narrator who reveals Toni’s thoughts, the story of the protagonists’ metamorphoses is told by means of episodic events that occur both before and during the allegorical journey from nationalistic assimilation to strong Jewish self-identification.

Made possible by a legacy willed to Toni by her final lover, an old man, the journey is prompted by Toni’s desire to see her parents, whom she has not seen since she eloped with August Strauss seventeen years earlier, and by her desire to prevent her son from becoming like his callously brutal and abusive father, who divorced Toni after three years of marriage and saw his son only once.

Although Toni has not been an attentive mother because her extraordinary beauty brought her many lovers with whom she has spent her time, Rudi loves her deeply. His education in the Austrian Gymnasium, however, leads Rudi to disparage his mother’s lack of knowledge and encourages him to think like his Austrian peers, whom he resembles in appearance and behavior. Not until his last years at the Gymnasium does Rudi learn that to be a Jew is to be despised. The journey, then, affords mother and son the opportunity to learn more about each other as they discuss Judaism and values, and Rudi discovers that although Toni is a “non-believer,” ironically, she is “ready to die” for her faith.

Each encounter with other travelers, innkeepers, and guests expands Rudi’s perceptions of being Jewish, especially as he notes how differently the common people react to him because of his handsome, tall, Aryan appearance as compared to the way they react toward his mother’s beautiful but stereotypically Jewish appearance. Toni is both pleased and frightened by her son’s Austrian bearing and behavior. When he is strongly self-confident and physically aggressive against those who insult Toni’s Jewishness and when he shows none of the Jewish restraint bred by centuries of anti-Semitism, she is pleased. Yet when he displays other similarly non-Jewish characteristics such as a fascination with horses, gambling, womanizing, drinking, and carousing, she is frightened that she will lose him. Nevertheless, Toni wants her son to be Jewish. As she tells Jews in one inn along their way, “I brought my son here to learn Jewishness—he needs it very badly.”

The journey lasts much longer than the distance warrants and as the pair near Toni’s birthplace, the land of the cattails bordering the river Prut, Toni becomes critically ill with typhus in the town of Buszwyn. In the three months it takes for Toni to recover and for the weather to become suitable for travel, Rudi’s Jewish veneer begins to rub off. He forgets his mother’s condition and makes love to a...

(The entire section is 1208 words.)