Themes and Meanings

The overriding theme of To the Land of the Cattails is a self-identification and return to Judaism that ultimately leads to the Holocaust. Through the process of a literal and allegorical pilgrimage through bitter tests of commitment and back to the roots of faith and childhood innocence, rebirth and introspection enable the characters to discover their noblest essence—their Judaism. Recurrent are the themes of an almost elemental and omnipresent anti-Semitism among non-Jews and a recognition of equally elemental differences between Jewish and non-Jewish attitudes and behaviors.

As in many of Aharon Appelfeld’s works, forests symbolize freedom, as evidenced by Toni’s ability to converse more easily with her son as they travel through wooded terrain and also by the lack of inhibitions that allows Rudi to display his peasant like characteristics that continue into his later actions. Additionally, forests allow hidden routes to Jews escaping the train stations and deportation. Also, what people eat affords insight into their characters; thus, as Rudi loses his Jewish veneer, his attraction to heavy food and drink renders him insensitive to the danger his mother is enduring, as he gluts himself with food and then falls asleep.

Stylistically, the language is simple and direct and suits the story well. Although the reader is not required to untangle difficult allusions or unravel complex interwoven subplots, the language and descriptive imagery of simile encourage reflection and expansion.