Old Men at Midnight

by Chaim Potok

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 394

The narrator for all three stories is Iania Davita Dinn, newly graduated from high school in Brooklyn when the first novella, The Ark Builder, unfolds. As interesting as the story is, it is perhaps unfortunate that it is told from the standpoint of the young girl who, as Potok’s mouthpiece, is less than convincing. Potok’s shadow casts itself over her dialogue and action in this story.

Be that as it may, Noah Stremin, a sixteen year old in 1947, to whom Davita gives English lessons, is at first quite reticent and reserved, but as the summer wears on, he eventually tells his tale to Davita. Noah, it turns out, is the only Jew from his Polish village to escape the Holocaust. As he becomes more comfortable with Davita, he tells her of his close friendship with Reb Binyomin, who looks after his village’s synagogue.

Davita next appears as a graduate student, in which role she makes a more convincing narrator than she did in The Ark Builder. In this second novella, The War Doctor, Davita urges a visiting lecturer, Leon Shertov, to record in writing his experiences in Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union. In his youth, when he served in the Russian army during World War I, a Jewish doctor saved his life. Eventually Leon became a KBG interrogator, and as such, he again meets the doctor who saved his life. This time, the doctor is a prisoner, jailed in Stalin’s campaign against physicians and, especially, Jewish physicians.

In the third novella, The Trope Teacher, Davita has matured into an accomplished woman, an author of some repute, who becomes friends with the renowned historian Benjamin Walter, who needs expert help in writing his memoirs. Davita piques him into dredging the memories of events from his adolescence, when Mr. Zapiski, who served in World War I with Benjamin’s father, tutored him. She leads Walter to resurrect long-forgotten memories of his own experiences in World War II, and in so doing, she presents a convincing antiwar argument that borders on pacifism.

The War Doctor is at once the most artistically executed and most disturbing of the stories in this group that, when taken together, present a coherent case for banishing war from the universe. The depths of feeling that Potok brought to his final literary effort is clearly apparent in its execution.

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