Reviewed by Erica Ball
A profound spiritual meditation on the human reaction to atrocity and if any meaning can be found in great suffering
The Bones of the World is the story of a Jewish woman named Rachel who lives in a very near, conceivable future where anti-Semitism is reaching a fever peak. Then, come reports of Jewish people suddenly disappearing with no explanation.
As the danger escalates, Rachel is forced into hiding only to find herself in the company of some remarkable people and involved in incredible work of a type she couldn’t have imagined. In this work, she is confronted with innumerable stories of the suffering of fellow humans. Of lives lost. Of children, of family, and of beloved friends.
The plight of Rachel and her family at this terrible time, as well as her discovery of these stories and their unexpected source, is the driving force to the novel, but underneath that is—to borrow the language of the book—a mountain made of the stones of other stories. These focus on other points in history during which Jews were being directly targeted: A young girl flees the Inquisition to Peru, only to find it follows her there shortly after; a young man scrambling to survive in Poland after the Germans have invaded in World War II.
Because of the striking similarities in the multiple plots some readers may find it tricky to remember the backstory of each character as the book moves back and forth between them. This can be confusing as the story unravels, but also brings home the repetitive nature of these vile chapters in history.
What provides the book additional weight is that the author grounds her work in the immense tradition of other Jewish storytellers who have mentally toiled over the same issues. This tradition is present not just in the themes in the book but also within the narration and explicitly by the characters themselves.
The subjects tackled by the author and her characters are some of the weightiest ones imaginable. They are forced to bear immense suffering on the personal, community, and global scale. They contemplate how to align this suffering to the tenets of their faith. They ask how a person can trust in or devote themselves to a God that permits atrocities to be visited on His people—and not just once, but over and over again, in countries all over the world. They wrestle with the very essence of how they conceive of themselves. And they question how they as a people have reacted to these crimes against them in the past, and how they should react in the future. Should they fight more? Should they seek vengeance? Should they face pain and death with calm certainty in their faith?
These questions are, of course, not exclusive to this religion, but ones also found in all communities who have been stripped of their humanity by others and become targets for rage and hate due to their beliefs, identity, culture, or associations,
The importance of books like this is demonstrated by these questions and content as well as explicitly discussed in the stories themselves. And it is, of course, the individual stories themselves that pack the most punch. Life stories are crucial when discussing questions like these; otherwise they can be too abstract. A person’s story grounds the issue and brings it to life. To continue the metaphor, it is only by focusing on a specific stone that we can see the mountain for what it really is.
Told with a wry sense of humor that appears at unexpected but welcome places, The Bones of the World is an ode to the many Jewish storytellers that have carried–and continued to carry on–this crucial work. But it is also a lament that these stories exist to be told at all.
Thank you for reading Erica Ball’s book review of The Bones of the World by Betsy L. Ross! If you liked what you read, please spend some more time with us at the links below.