“The sidewalks of Williamsburg were cracked squares of cement, the streets paved with asphalt that softened in the stifling summers and broke apart into potholes in the bitter winters.”
With descriptive powers of a superb poet, Chaim Potok reveals a whole world to us, a microcosm of Jewish life in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. We feel things like soft asphalt on a stifling summer day the whole time we are engulfed in the story.
Reuven Malter is at war, the usual war inside any adolescent boy. His baseball coach uses military language for everything, “Now we give them our heavy artillery; now we barrage them!” Reuven chooses at first to see Danny Saunder’s aggressiveness at the batting plate as a deliberate act of violence. There is a perceived war between the staunch traditionalist Hasidim represent by Danny’s father, Reb Saunders, and the modernist traditionalists represented by Reuven’s father, David Malter. The Hasidim, at least on the baseball field, call the boys from the modern yeshiva apikorsim (heretics, those who abandoned Judaism).
But from his hospital bed, following an incident in chapter 1, Reuven begins as early as the second chapter to see things differently. His saintly father rebuffs him for claiming that Danny Saunders acted deliberately. Reuven hears that his eye may scar up and leave him half-blind. At the time he learns this disconcerting fact, Reuven lies between two other patients. On one side is a boxer whose career may be over because of eye and head injuries. On the other is a blind boy whose condition might be reversible with surgery. Life is filled with struggle and tragedy.
But somehow, even in these short initial chapters, we feel hope. The power to bring good in a sad world belongs to people who have the strength inside them to make it happen.