Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1208
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 peasant girl who leaves him after being given an expensive gift: a very valuable bracelet belonging to Toni. Yet the illness appears to have wrought positive changes in Toni. She becomes happy and enjoys being the center of attention and gaiety until spring allows their departure. Whereas Rudi was accustomed to setting tests of values for Toni, Toni begins to set tests for Rudi and “a quiet joy dwelt in her face.” Her composure, self-assurance, and resolve to return are strengthened by her illness. She gains new insight into her purpose and finalizes her determination to return home. All the while, evidence of escalating hatred and violence against Jews surrounds them.
Unexpectedly, as Rudi nears the land of the cattails, physically and mentally he becomes less and less Jewish. Toni fears that bringing her son home with her was a poor idea—that he is not ready for the epiphany:Deep inside herself she knew he wouldn’t understand. Perhaps it was good that he didn’t understand. The suffering of the Jews was far from glorious. That night the word goy rose up from within her.... Her father would sometimes, though only occasionally, use that word to indicate hopeless obtuseness.
Toni is right. When they are only two hours away from her parents’ home, they stop at an unpleasant inn and remain there for weeks as Rudi drinks himself into stupor daily and finally proclaims: “The Jews are the root of all evil.... I hate the Jews. They are merchants and thieves.”
Finally, Toni leaves her son sleeping, hires a wagon, and goes to her home. After two days, Rudi leaves to find his mother, and as he travels he thinks about the even more militaristic Austrian education he wished he had had, and he longs for the company of a woman. The two-hour journey takes him a full day, and at Dratscincz he learns that all Jews were deported earlier that day to the railroad station. Instead of starting immediately, he goes to sleep and reaches the station the next morning—only to find that the train has already left and that the next station is two hours away. He eats, smokes, and goes to sleep for an hour before leaving, arriving at the next station to see masses of Jews herded together by police. Making only a desultory attempt to find his mother, Rudi watches the train fill with Jews, sure that his mother “could not be among those wretches.” Rudi continues to wander from station to station, getting drunk, hitting and being hit, seeing Jews running away from the stations and furtively dissolving into the forests, but the police and peasants accept him as one of their own.
Finally, one evening Rudi meets thirteen-year-old Arna, a hungry, frightened girl who has been in hiding ever since her family was taken away from the station as she sought water for her mother. They begin to travel together, and Arna tells Rudi about the Jewish way of life, one his mother had not lived. They wander across the countryside, seeing plundered, abandoned Jewish homes. With the onset of winter, Rudi becomes mortally ill and feverish, and they take shelter in an abandoned home. Arna’s innocent, persevering determination to save Rudi is joined by her belief in God, and as the arrival of spring coincides with the end of their meager food supply, Rudi recovers enough for them to leave the cold house and ask for shelter in a common inn.
Demanding to see Rudi’s papers, the innkeeper cannot believe that Rudi is Austrian, and the peasants are suspicious of him and roar with laughter at the pair, in sharp contrast to the former unquestioning acceptance of Rudi’s heritage. Arna’s innocent belief and the cleansing fire of prolonged illness as Rudi “wrestled with the angel of death” have led to Rudi’s physical and spiritual conversion to Judaism. Rudi “lost his former essence. Astonishment filled his soul.” Lengthy travel leads them to a train station where Arna and Rudi eagerly await being picked up and brought together with their people. At last they see it:It was an old locomotive, drawing two old cars—the local, apparently. It went from station to station, scrupulously gathering up the remainder.
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