March 2, 2024
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Our Is, Indeed, a ‘Single Journey’

Review: “Good for a Single Journey” by Helen Joyce. Amsterdam Publishers. 2023. Paperback. English. ISBN 978: 9493276611.

I recently read Helen Joyce’s newly released, well-received debut novel, “Good for a Single Journey” published by Amsterdam Publishers. Helen Joyce has painted a sweeping Jewish family saga on a huge canvas stretching from 1914-1962. The book traces the real lives of four generations of her maternal family starting with the opening shots of WWI and her great grandparents’ flight from the market town of Rozwadów, Galicia. Pessya and Shmaryahu Speigel flee with their five children to Vienna, capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Like all forced migrants, the Chasidic family struggles to adapt. Each of the five grown, or nearly grown, children inevitably follows his or her own destiny. Two of the brothers, fired by political Zionism, see their exile in Vienna as the golden opportunity to try and find a way to join the early chalutzim in the Holy Land – then a backwater of the Ottoman Empire. The youngest brother returns with his parents to Poland at the end of WWI. One sister marries and remains in Vienna while the other makes a home in Belgium.

The book is thoroughly researched, well written in an absorbing style, and incorporates historical detail surrounding the legal underpinnings which lend today’s State of Israel its legitimacy under international law. The book follows the original characters and their offspring, now scattered across Europe and British Mandate Palestine, as each battles the rising tide of antisemitism and faces the turmoil soon to engulf the world as Hitler rises to power.

The reader experiences the period when Nazi atrocities reach their peak through the eyes of each branch of the family. Thereafter, a new generation is tracked as survivors struggle to rebuild shattered lives, finally to establish the Jewish homeland. The book ends in 1962 as surviving members of the family attempt to overcome a legacy of trauma and build their own new families.

Good for a Single Journey is unique in two ways. First, the book reads as if it is fiction and yet the characters are real, as are most of their experiences. Indeed, some of the main characters are portrayed in photographs at the end of the book. Secondly, while there are innumerable books dealing with the horrors of the Holocaust, Good for a Single Journey seamlessly intertwines the struggles of Jews both in Europe and pre-State Israel before, during and after WWII. The book is hard to categorise. Historical fiction, family memoir, or world history 101? Somehow it combines all three in a supremely readable novel that is hard to put down. In these troubled times, the book reminds us that the Jewish people have a shared destiny and history. Ours is indeed a single journey.

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