Book Review: 'Good Heart’ has good intentions

Alan Newman’s book intertwined stories of Christian and Jewish families and their shared connection to Israel.

A MAN stands amid Israeli flags displayed outside Auschwitz in 1998. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A MAN stands amid Israeli flags displayed outside Auschwitz in 1998.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
First came the Holocaust. Then, in a twist of fate, came the deep connection between two families whose stories interlace over 50 years in the new novel Good Heart, by Alan Newman.
The Langford family’s story opens with Bobby, a young Christian boy from Indiana, discovering a box in his family’s attic filled with Nazi armbands, pistols, daggers, a bayonet and a worn scrap of blue and white cloth. The discovery weighs heavily on the child, and he finally gathers the courage to ask his father what it all means. This leads John Langford, a World War II US Army veteran, to finally tell his wife and children that he had been among the soldiers to liberate Dachau, where he was greeted by a dying Jew’s final question: “Why did it take so long?”
The Baranson family story is far more tragic, and one that young Danny learns around the same time. Danny’s father, David, explains how his own father, Ike, grew up in Vienna and decided to leave Austria before the war. But as antisemitism got worse for him and his two brothers, there was only enough money to sponsor a trip out for one – and a horrific choice had to be made. Ike’s brother Leon was saved, but Ike and Leon never quite recovered from the guilt.
When the Baransons move into town, the Langfords make sure to befriend them, and the two sons – Danny and Bobby – become buddies, sharing typical childhood experiences, including playing together on the football team and an escapade of under-age drinking while sledding. Danny eventually grows up and meets Maya, an Israeli immigrant, whose father died in the Yom Kippur War, and has a son who moves to Israel to serve in the IDF. Bobby marries and raises proud Christian children who work in their churches to promote Zionism and missions to Israel.
But as the vague title of the book may suggest, the book is about both everything and nothing, with just 240 pages spanning nearly half a century, various countries, and covering many diverse individuals and historical moments. While there are short bursts of history that inspire interest and emotion, the book fails to delve too deeply into the human, personal side, leaving the dramatic anecdotes, like the ones mentioned above, completely forgettable. As a whole, the book lacks creativity and nuance, as if pushing clear and obvious ideologies, unoriginally packaged in an unimaginative storyline.
The characters are not really believable, each one a caricatured version of an idealized type. Likewise, the personalities are all one and the same, each thinking, talking and living exactly alike. Despite living in locations across the world and in generations spanning a half-century, despite life experiences ranging from escaping Ethiopia to getting injured in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, each character speaks and thinks in exactly the same manner. Aside from the narrator labeling each character as being Jewish or Christian, American, Israeli or Ethiopian, their personalities are entirely interchangeable. Lacking any sort of crisis or personal dilemmas and growth, the story drags on and can be a bit boring.
The book, however, is written well and Newman does a good job of touching on numerous aspects of Jewish and Zionist modern history, offering an uninformed reader plenty of information about the need for the State of Israel, some of the country’s wars, and the toll the constant fighting in the region has on the people who live here. It also tells of Israel’s rescue of Ethiopian Jewry and explains the experience of lone soldiers who come from afar to serve in the IDF.
While Good Heart lacks diversity in ideas, it succeeds in telling a brief story of a somewhat typical American Jewish family, encompassing the tragedy of the Holocaust, the price of the State of Israel and the hope for the future of the Jewish people.