The historical novel is neither strictly history nor strictly novel. The best writers in this genre, of which Uris was certainly one, are skilled enough to blur the lines between fiction and history. If all one knows about the founding of Israel or life in Ireland under English occupation is what one has read in Uris’s Exodus or Trinity, then one has only a rudimentary understanding of the subject, and that understanding is likely to be biased by the author’s own prejudices.
It is a testament to Uris’s power as a writer and thoroughness as a researcher that he was able to present his works in such a convincing light as to persuade his readers that they have gained a useful knowledge of the subject at hand. Literary critics, whose job it is to dissect works of fiction, point out Uris’s complete lack of objectivity. For example, Uris spoke on behalf of Jewish interests around the world, raising money for Jewish causes during his career, and his portrayals of Jewish soldiers and settlers in works such as Exodus must be accepted as the products of a man who was a devout Zionist. This observation, however, is not really criticism as much as truth. Uris was a Jew, and he sympathized with the plight of European Jews especially, and his novels reflect this.
Uris was a great storyteller, if somewhat overly melodramatic at times. He did not graduate from high school, and he earned his writer’s reputation on the job. The lack of polish, the brute force of his prose, shines through at times. His treatment of women characters in his novels, for example, is a product of his lack of sophistication. Women in his early novels, such as Kitty Fremont and Jordana Ben Canaan in Exodus, struggle with the role of the feminine. Jordana wants to be the equal of any man, but she resents Kitty’s frilly dresses, cosmetics, and demure attitude in the company of men. Kitty, meanwhile, resents Jordana and Dafna, Ari Ben Canaan’s first wife, for their strength and uncompromising personalities. In later novels, Uris moved away from this dichotomy and presented women as more modern, less inhibited, and more likely to engage men on a level playing field.
Exodus is the story of the founding of the state of Israel, including almost one hundred years of history before the Jewish state was founded in 1948. Full of great detail, this work is typical and the best example of Uris’s historical novels. The amount of background work that Uris invested and his extensive research into the supporting documents that went into the writing of Exodus are impressive.
While Exodus is a famous novel, it must be viewed in the context of its time. Published only ten years after the founding of the state of Israel, Exodus was particularly significant in its day because it gave Jewish people a sense of their history and chronicled their struggles, not only in Nazi Germany and Eastern Europe but also around the world. In the year of its publication, Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion has been quoted as saying about Exodus, “As a piece of propaganda, it’s the greatest thing ever written about Israel.”
Exodus presents Jewish characters in a light that up to the time of its publication was unusual—one of heroic stature. The novel’s main character, Ari Ben Canaan, is a sort of Jewish superman. Tall, dark, handsome, fearless, decisive, bold, and daring, Ari is a far cry from the Jewish stereotype presented in previous popular fiction. Uris addresses this difference in his foreword to the novel, noting that the characters in Exodus do not include shrewd businessmen, intelligent doctors, or humorous, self-deprecating Jewish men who have been in therapy for years.
This sweeping epic begins on the island of Cyprus only a couple of years after the end of World War II. The refugee problem, the issue of where to resettle millions of displaced Jews, many of them survivors of Nazi concentration camps, is vexing Europe. For generations, Jews have been slowly returning to Palestine; however, the large number of Jews needing relocation could overwhelm the resources of the Middle East and aggravate Arabs who already live there. Great Britain has control of the region and must walk a tightrope between appeasing Arab...
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