------------------------------- BOOK REPORT
"Zebra and Other Stories"
Chaim Potok will read from "Zebra and Other Stories" Monday at Lee Auditorium in the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave. Co-presented by the Elliott Bay Book Co. and the Washington Center for the Book. Free tickets are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. For more information, call Elliott Bay at 206-624-6600 or the Washington Center for the Book at 206-386-4184. -------------------------------
Though Chaim Potok is not officially known as a "young-adult writer," some of his novels for adults, such as "The Chosen" and "The Promise," often appear on reading lists for teens. In contrast, his latest offering, while marketed specifically toward the adolescent set, should appeal to older folks, too.
"Zebra and Other Stories" is full of contrasts. The title piece quickly nudges the reader into noticing the shadow and light that delineates the world.
Adam Martin Zebrin, a.k.a. Zebra, a passionate runner, meets his first major catastrophe as a young teenager in the form of a car. " . . . He had given himself that push and had begun to turn into an eagle, when a huge rushing shadow appeared in his line of vision and crashed into him and plunged him into a darkness from which he emerged very, very slowly . . . "
The accident snuffs Zebra's ability to run, leaving him physically and emotionally crippled - "gloomy," as one of his classmates puts it. He struggles bitterly with this twist of fate until, within a year of the accident, he meets John Wilson, a one-armed Vietnam vet who also happens to be a fine artist.
During a summer art class that Wilson teaches, the veteran teaches him how to see through a new lens, and Zebra begins to draw and view the world more completely. Eventually Zebra also views his teacher in a new light - communicating this awareness through his artwork. In the end, student and teacher find healing in each other.
Though the remaining five stories are each unique in viewpoint, they explore similar themes of loss, grief, and healing. Potok moves away from the fascinating Jewish dilemmas he often depicts by sketching figures from various, often unstated, religious backgrounds - some even decidedly Christian. Yet religious issues - the organized kind, anyway - remain peripheral as the characters move through stripes of light and dark, ultimately coming up flawed, but whole.
One of the more powerful pieces is "Nava," which describes a young girl's quest to understand her father. She finds herself drawn to a story her father tells her about how he lost his soul in Vietnam, especially when he confesses that a completely different soul entered his body after he was rescued by a Navaho soldier.
As the tale becomes more deeply embedded in her imagination, Nava realizes she wouldn't exist if it weren't for the soldier; she develops a fascination with Navaho culture, particularly their concept of harmony - also an interest of her father's. This budding spiritual awareness, and some well-chosen advice from Dad, lend her strength when - through no fault of her own - she finds herself on dangerous ground.
In the end she realizes, "losing your soul is when you can't tell a story about something that has happened to you" - a truth her father already understands.
Most of the pieces have a minor mystical thread running through them, such as protagonists experiencing visions or hearing the voices of dead relatives. Dreams often shed light on psyches. For the most part, these facets are not overdone; the resulting metaphorical layers add a nice dimension.
Occasionally, the prose gets a bit tangled. And in places the dialogue does not ring true. When referring to drugs, today's kids do not go around saying "You are old enough now to start"; that's a parental line.
In the story "Isabel," about two teens learning to become stepsisters - their ultimate friendship develops too quickly and easily to be believable.
Still, Potok manages to paint timeless dilemmas. Unless kids read the inside flap, they won't even guess he's a rabbi.