There are many paths to enlightenment, eight according to the Buddha, but surely a subset of the Path of Right Action is the Rescuer's Path. People who find themselves on this path, almost without choosing, feel compelled to help those in danger. Doing so requires a level of personal responsibility, a willingness to step forward and risk yourself rather than shrinking back into the protective cover of the crowd. Failure is always possible.
Sixteen-year-old Malca is still trying to figure out her place in the world when, riding in Rock Creek Park, exercising a horse from the stable where she works, she stumbles upon a badly wounded man, unconscious and sprawled in a stream. Even as she remembers her mother's warnings, she is off the horse and helping him, eventually, after he refuses to let her call the police or EMTs, pulling him out of the stream and dressing his bullet wounds with the first aid kit the stable requires her to carry. Though afraid of the man, and more so later when she learns the police are looking for a terrorist bomber who supposedly blew up an Army truck killing soldiers and a passerby—it is 1971 and anti-Vietnam War protests, violent and otherwise, are happening everywhere—she agrees to keep his secret and returns again and again with food, medicine, blankets, and clothes.
The front cover is unsettling, mixing as it does a photograph of a mountain lake surmounted by a rock wall and pines with a drawing, almost a cartoon, of a young man and woman, and the whole overlaid with wreaths of mist. Based on the cover (I never read the back cover description until after I've finished a book), my expectations for the story were all over the place. This state of mind turned out to be good preparation for this book which transcends genre. It's part love story and part coming-of-age story, historical fiction and philosophical examination. It could be classified as Young Adult or Adult fiction.
The first part of the book is told alternately from Malca's point of view and that of Gavin, a half-Syrian former activist who has been convicted of a previous nonviolent action. Since a stint in a mental institution he has been living rough in the park, trying to recapture the songs that once poured out and endlessly debating with himself the ethical implications of violent and nonviolent action, action intended to help others. He calls it the Count: is it right to kill one small girl to save hundreds of people? Is it right to kill two soldiers if it helps stop a war where thousands are being killed? Yet, as he is so aware, each person is a universe.
I remember these discussions from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Friedman captures the flavor of the time when so much was uncertain and the world seemed on the verge of change. She also brilliantly works the theme of nonviolence through her characters, their actions and relationships, without becoming polemical—a rare and difficult accomplishment. The characters, too, are deeply layered. Gavin's first-person narrative intrigued me, starting with near-incoherence through his recovery, his voice demonstrating what he is learning. One thing that drives Malca forward on her path in spite of her continuing fear is remembering that her mother and grandmother were saved from the Nazis by a friend who later for her generosity perished in the camps.
The second part of the book jumps forward thirty years and we learn how these events from the past have informed Malca's life, dipping back through the intervening decades. What changes and what doesn't change bring out the kind of questions that continue to fascinate me: how do we understand our past? What is the narrative we make of our lives? There are some events we keep circling back to, just as I did yesterday, on the anniversary of a terrible day, a day that changed everything about me and my life. Looking back, I think of the decisions, conscious and unconscious, that created my path. I, too, while working on the other seven, have concentrated on the Path of Right Action, not the Rescuer's Path but another variant. This book not only moved me but also made me think: a welcome combination.