Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 411

In The Source , James Michener addresses the central idea of water, origin, and belief through a single “source,” which is literally a spring (Makor). Set in Israel, the novel moves from the earliest human habitation of the particular area called Makor up to the 1960s. The ancient setting is...

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In The Source, James Michener addresses the central idea of water, origin, and belief through a single “source,” which is literally a spring (Makor). Set in Israel, the novel moves from the earliest human habitation of the particular area called Makor up to the 1960s. The ancient setting is contextualized within a contemporary story that combines archaeology, politics, and romance. Highlighting significant events of the specific location, Michener places them within the national history of Israel, including attention to the country’s formation in 1948. As the book more than 1100 pages long, it is not for everyone.

The challenges of addressing such a vast scale are obvious in his ambitious undertaking. First, he must bring to life a people about whom very little factual information is known. The family of Ur, with its founder—a man named Ur—dates back to more than 9,000 B.C.E. Michener aims to recreate their life ways as hunter-gatherers who begin the process of plant domestication and ponder the meaning of life. Their belief system includes rituals of human sacrifice.

Moving forward in time to a more well-understood era, the author brings in the Haiburu, ancestors of the Hebrews. He shows their tradition from polytheism to nascent monotheism. They are succeeded by a group that reveres Yahweh and transforms the landscape through irrigation. Next he introduces the first significant female protagonist, before moving forward again to the Roman era. He then skips ahead to the early Byzantine imperial occupation, so that Christianity is already well established in the world, and the first Christian convert character appears, Menahem. Another leap forward brings the action up to the 7th-century Muslim expansion.

The impact of two eras of persecution is also featured, the Crusades and the Inquisition. Moving into the modern era, Michener introduces 19th-century Eastern European settlers, especially fleeing tsarist Russia. The concept of homeland in the 20th century dominates the rest of the book.

Michener brings a message of ecumenical harmony and tolerance although he does not stint in presenting violent conflicts and persecution that have plagued his fictional locale.

As Michener aims to combine modern, individual characters with a massive saga, the book is uneven. All the characters tend toward stereotypes, and the healed relationships between former antagonists often feel strained. More than 50 years after its original 1965 publication, the historical material holds up better than the ancient scenes, as archaeology has made many advances, or the recent material, as so much has happened in the region.

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