Except in the fabled classics of western literature, where plot often spans continents and generations, themes canvas ultimate issues of the human condition, and dialogue echoes the grand ideas of philosophy, modern fiction writers tend to be more circumscribed in the sweep of their narratives.
Perhaps due to the “competing” immediateness of television, movies and computers, so much of our popular fiction tells tales of conspiracies to harm the world and heroism that saves it. The stories may succeed as entertainment but do not reach higher or leave their mark in our memory banks as literature.
Wendy Dubow Polins, a debut novelist from Boston, has just carved a mark considerably above the usual reach of the modern fiction writer. Her recently published novel, Fare Forward (Hamilton Hall Press), aspires high and reaches high.
It tells a story of a young woman, Gabriella, who must unravel secrets of family, of life, of human history, of heaven and stars before she is finally free to walk the path of her own destiny. Her story, like the stories of all of us, begins before her birth with her parents and grandparents, all of whom play critically decisive roles in helping determine Gabriella’s ultimate destination.
At its core, Fare Forward is essentially an exploration into the existence and nature of the human soul. But the readers are not plunged into the murky, neo-theological, self-help swimming pool – shallow or deep end – of New Age doctrine. Rather, Polins imaginatively, painstakingly and effectively weaves together disciplines of science, theology, history and esthetics into a thoughtful discussion-excursion into the mysteries of human life in general and the purposes of each of our lives specifically.
In an introductory note, Polins tells the reader, “In this novel, I have been inspired by the many and sometimes inconsistent theoretical ideas that are offered in physics, literature and ancient mystical texts.”
Her inspiration brings the reader to a thought-provoking literary destination where we travel in the company of historic figures such as Albert Einstein; the Jews who lived and died at Masada, and a cast of compelling characters such as the vivacious and artistic Gabriella; her parents, who live in the mystics’ Galilean city of Safed; her grandmother, Sophie, whose extrasensory powers channel both past and future; her grandfather, who has a Nobel Prize in chemistry, and a mysterious time traveller.
At its narrowest level, Fare Forward tells a story of international intrigue that threatens certain individuals and perhaps even the western way of life. But at its most expansive, it is a story of love in its most profound manifestations, as well as a reflection on the place of finite, single human life in the infinite flow of time and space. In the pages of Fare Forward, Polins reflects on the power of esthetics, whether of poetry, music, art, architecture, and even of the esthetics of science.
Not surprisingly therefore, she pays great attention herself to the esthetics of her writing and not simply to the force of the narrative. Thus we read elegantly evocative passages such as the following reflection by Gabriella as she lies in bed preparing for sleep: “I notice the white light the moon makes on the ocean, like a path to infinity.”
As the action reaches its full denouement near the end of the story, we are given to understand with full clarity one of the key messages of the story. “It’s for love. That’s what we’re here for. All of us. And love is bigger and more powerful than anything – any scientific theory, any one individual’s will and sometimes even the rules of the universe. Love is more powerful than time itself.”
Polins writes with a reverence for place and for people and a sense of a humility that are both rare and refreshing in young writers. She stops at various stations in narrative to deliver lines of homage and gratitude about her surroundings. For example, in describing the faculty of architecture building in Colombia, where Gabriella is studying, Polins writes: “Sunlight pours through the large pyramidal skylight that anchors the central atrium. The walls are hung with contemporary art and photographs of projects from alumni who have gone on to distinguished careers. It is an honour to have the chance to present in this space, as openness on all sides lends a sense of drama and importance to the occasion.”
The very title itself, an extract from a poem by T. S. Eliot, is a clue to the reader that we will be traveling in a literary carriage into an intelligently written, challenging, provocative, unconventional dreamscape of human passion and existential mystery.
Polins was born and was raised in Montreal. Her roots are there, she told The CJN in a telephone conversation last week. She visits there still.
Much like the parental and grandparental characters of her novel, her parents provided strong examples of personal action and commitment. Her physician father, along with two other Canadian doctors, volunteered in 1973 to help treat Israeli army casualties during the Yom Kippur War. Her mother was instrumental in helping establish the renowned, activist Group of 35 on behalf of Soviet Jewry in the 1970s and ’80s.
It was through her mother’s work, on a clear day in 1974, that Polins met Israeli prime minister Golda Meir. “She looked like a grandmother, but she was a warrior. I will never forget what she told me,” Polins said. “Your life should be about ideas and about changing things.” These words and the theme they inspired find their way into Fare Forward.
After living for a while in Israel, Polins studied architecture in New York. She lives in the Boston area where she writes and teaches art history at Salem State University.
In words and ideas that echoed the large expansive style of her book, Polins told The CJN her motivation in writing Fare Forward. It “describes a journey. We are all voyagers. We are all on a journey. My quest [in the book] is to understand the point of life.”
There were a number of factors, Polins explained, that came together at the same time that led her to put aside her work as an architect and pick up an author’s pen.
As she accompanied her daughter to survey potential college campuses, Polins was reminded of that stage in our young lives “when we feel everything and anything was possible, when we find ourselves on the threshold of the new dawn.”
She then decided “it was time to take a chance.” The economy had slowed down in any event, and she saw a new opportunity to try to write the story that would combine her interests, curiosities and investigations, through Jewish study, into matters of the soul, and the distillate of a lecture she had heard at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about Einstein, in which the lecturer claimed that Einstein had believed in the one-ness, the inter-connectedness of all life in the universe.
“What if,” Polins speculated out loud, “Einstein had discovered something, had known something [about the unity of all physics and spirit] and held it back?”
And therein was planted in Polins’ soaring imagination the seed of a story that has since germinated, to our reading pleasure, into Fare Forward.
As our conversation drew to a close, Polins again mentioned her meeting with Meir. “Golda told me I should find the things in life worth fighting for. And so, I’ve tried.”
Fare Forward is the literary expression of that search and of the precious things that she found along the way that she suggests are worth fighting for.
Read it to see if you agree.