By – November 14, 2011

From The Odyssey onward, the search for home has been a com­pelling lit­er­ary theme, but few have done it with more style than Meir Shalev in his lat­est nov­el, A Pigeon and a Boy. Shalev explores the mean­ing and the essence of home in a sto­ry both unusu­al and beau­ti­ful that pos­i­tive­ly soars.

Pro­tag­o­nist Yair Mendel­son is a tour guide escort­ing vis­i­tors the length and breadth of his home­land, Israel. His moth­er has empha­sized from his ear­li­est child­hood that noth­ing is more impor­tant than a home of one’s own in which to express one­self ful­ly and with sat­is­fac­tion. Hel­lo house” he was taught to say when he walked through the door at the end of the day and then to await the house’s answer of wel­come. Alter­nat­ing flash­back chap­ters fol­low a char­ac­ter nick­named the Baby, per­haps because he nev­er grows up to have a home of his own. The Baby trains hom­ing pigeons for use by the fledg­ling Israeli army dur­ing the War of Inde­pen­dence. Through his job as pigeon han­dler, the Baby learns that hom­ing pigeons (and peo­ple, too) must love their home if they are to return to it. This theme echoes and reechoes through­out the book in ways both large and small from the War of Inde­pen­dence estab­lish­ing a home­land to the joys of home ren­o­va­tion. It is home, the author makes us under­stand, that is the source of all things good. Friend­ship, secu­ri­ty, love, pas­sion, opti­mism and hope, all these are root­ed in the nest one builds and feath­ers and to which one returns when day is done.

The con­nec­tion between Yair and the Baby is a unique and unex­pect­ed plot twist that I will allow the read­er to dis­cov­er for him — or her­self. Suf­fice it to say that this lyri­cal tale flies high above the crowd.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.

Discussion Questions

From Ran­dom House

1) We enter in the mid­dle of a sto­ry. First we hear the words of the old Pal­mach fight­er, who speaks as a wit­ness to a his­tor­i­cal moment, and then Yair, the nar­ra­tor, adds to the sto­ry the emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence of the pigeon. Did you find this an effec­tive open­ing? How did it draw you into the sto­ry, or keep you dis­tanced from it?

2) What is the impor­tance of occu­pa­tions in the nov­el: Lio­ra’s busi­ness, Tirza­h’s con­trac­tor work, Yor­dad’s doc­tor­ing, Yair’s role as a tour guide and dri­ver? What does their work say about how each char­ac­ter approach­es his or her life?

3) The act of nam­ing is essen­tial to how we see one anoth­er and to the rela­tion­ships we claim for our­selves. Yair’s fam­i­ly calls Yaa­cov Yor­dad”; Yor­dad calls Yair Yairi,” mean­ing my Yair”; Tirzah calls her father Meshu­lam”; Meshu­lam calls Yair and Tirzah Iraleh and Tiraleh.” How do you think these choic­es affect both those who are named and those who are naming?

4) What do you make of Meshu­lam’s role in the nov­el? How is his pres­ence like and unlike that of Dr. Laufer, whose actions help direct the fate of the Girl and the Baby — as Meshu­lam attempts to encour­age Tirzah and Yair to have a life together?

5) The neces­si­ty of a house that responds and belongs to the per­son inside it is essen­tial to Raya and, in turn, to Yair. How impor­tant is the idea of home to the oth­er char­ac­ter — to Ben­jamin, Yor­dad, Tirzah, Meshu­lam, Dr. Laufer? What is your own def­i­n­i­tion of home?

6) There are ele­ments of mag­i­cal real­ism in the nov­el, specif­i­cal­ly when the pigeons speak — once to Raya and once to Yair. What is the effect of these con­ver­sa­tions? What is the sig­nif­i­cance of the pigeons’ words? Why do you think Raya and Yair react in such dra­mat­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent ways? Yair’s expe­ri­ences of the world are so tied to his moth­er’s — when she is preg­nant, he gets sick as well — yet he can­not bear to have pigeons in his house or to deal with them in any way. What does his vio­lence against the pigeon in the end sug­gest about his con­nec­tion to his mother?

7) The pres­ence of cranes cre­ates a con­trast to the hom­ing pigeons. For Yair, cranes mark the begin­ning and the return of Lio­ra to his life; while for Raya, pigeons define the begin­ning and the end of the Baby’s life. What do you make of the role of the dif­fer­ent birds in the nov­el, and what do they symbolize?

8) To make deci­sions, Raya and Yair both com­pile lists FOR and AGAINST. Yor­dad clas­si­fies the world, divid­ing it up into parts and work­ing to fix what is bro­ken. What does this dif­fer­ence sug­gest about the divide between Raya and Yor­dad? Do you rec­og­nize your own way of mak­ing deci­sions in either approach?

9) Why do you think Raya chose to mar­ry Yor­dad, and why do you think she chose to leave him when she did?

10) The nov­el explores in intri­cate and mov­ing pas­sages the ways in which faith and des­tiny deter­mine our lives — from the pigeon land­ing on the Girl’s bal­cony to Meshu­lam bring­ing his sick son to Yor­dad’s offices. Yair speaks often about fate and how oth­ers pre­dict his sto­ry, and also speaks of his own pas­sive char­ac­ter traits: I am a kite whose string has sev­ered.… I set­tle for hopes and wish­es, in the man­ner of the devout in prayer; like a ham­mer that pounds again and again on the same spot.” What do you think the nov­el sug­gests about the role of des­tiny, and about the impor­tance of our own choic­es to deter­mine our fate?

11) Speak­ing to Yor­dad after he returns from med­ical school, and after the Baby’s death, Raya says to him: Fun­ny, how Dr. Laufer deter­mined all of our fates. Yours, mine, my baby that lives, and my Baby who died.” Dr. Laufer, like Meshu­lam, is a fig­ure of utmost impor­tance, yet one who remains in the back­ground of the sto­ry. What do you make of his char­ac­ter, and of his role in the fate of Raya, her love, and her family?

12) Yair often remarks on how dif­fer­ent he is from his broth­er, though both were raised by Yor­dad as his sons. What does the nov­el sug­gest about what is inher­it­ed and what can be given?

13) How does the nov­el explore the ways in which we mourn our dead? Is Yair’s nar­ra­tion a way of mourn­ing his moth­er? What do you make of Meshu­lam sleep­ing in his son, Ger­shon­’s, bed after his death?

14) When Yor­dad returns to Raya, he states that he believes souls can be fixed. What does the nov­el sug­gest about the abil­i­ty of peo­ple to fix their souls and their lives? Do you think Raya is ever able to love Yordad?

15) At the heart of the nov­el is the idea of sto­ry: that we exist as part of a sto­ry, both our own and that of oth­ers. Raya asks her son, Do you under­stand what every per­son needs?” and Yair replies, A sto­ry.” What do you think the nov­el says about why sto­ries are essen­tial to our exis­tence and about what it means to claim a sto­ry as your own — and, addi­tion­al­ly, that every sto­ry we tell is more about us than it can be about any oth­er per­son fig­ur­ing in the story?

16) This ques­tion of sto­ry relates very inti­mate­ly to the act of writ­ing and read­ing. In cre­at­ing this nov­el, the author had an array of nar­ra­tive choic­es. What do you think of Shalev’s choice of a first-per­son nar­ra­tor who speaks to you” (his moth­er), as well as to us, the read­ers? Is Yair a trust­wor­thy nar­ra­tor? And how do our own per­son­al expe­ri­ences — of love, fam­i­ly, loss — affect our reac­tion to the novel?

17) Yair remarks fre­quent­ly how his moth­er greets hous­es: Hel­lo, house.” Lio­ra, lying with Yair at his house, says, Hel­lo, you,” and Yair’s body breathes and responds.” What do you think is sim­i­lar and dif­fer­ent about Yair’s love and con­nec­tion to the women and hous­es in his life: his moth­er and their home; Tirzah and the house she builds for him; and Lio­ra and the apart­ment they own? Why do you think Yair choos­es to go back to Lio­ra in the end, to show her the house that has been cre­at­ed whol­ly with­out her?

18) Only the last chap­ter in the nov­el is named, instead of num­bered. Why do you think the author chose to name it, and to include a sum­ma­ry of what hap­pens to the char­ac­ters after Yair’s nar­ra­tion ends? How does the inclu­sion of this final chap­ter relate to your expe­ri­ence of the nov­el as a whole? Do you appre­ci­ate hear­ing what hap­pens to the char­ac­ters, or is it dis­rup­tive to the nar­ra­tive voice?