Review by Walter Cummins
Talia Carner personifies the turmoil of mid twentieth-century history in The Boy with the Star Tattoo by interweaving three narratives featuring individuals who struggle with the threats that surround them—the Nazi invasion of France and dangers to the new state of Israel. These characters suffer loss and endure fear in their quest for survival. At the heart of their vulnerability lies the question of identity. At first it must be suppressed and then, the war over, recognized and revealed until a later need demands concealment again. The Jewish star tattooed into the heel of a newborn symbolizes all that is at stake.
In the novel’s prologue, Carner establishes a tension that carries through to the final pages. It is October 1946 and Judith Katz is desperate to smuggle a group of Jewish children from France into what was then Eretz Israel, a biblical name for the Promised Land. The British authorities governing the land they designated as Palestine are patrolling the beaches to prevent such entry. The children must stay absolutely silent. If captured, they will be sent back to Europe or locked behind barbed wire in camps on Cyprus. Judith prays: “Terror has been her constant companion these past six years, since she was eleven.” Twenty-two years later, in September 1968, her orphaned daughter, Sharon Bloomenthal, experiences a similar anxiety in Cherbourg, France, as she fears discovery of a plan to slip six newly built Saar ships out of the harbor to head for Israel.
In the first part of the novel, chapters set during the years of World War II are driven by the life or death need to stay concealed, by suppressing an identity as Jewish or Jewish sympathizer and, in some cases, literally crawling into hidden spaces. Ironically, when the war ends, the Nazis defeated, the purpose reverses. Now the quest becomes finding Jews and discovering lost children. But in the chapters set two decades later, with the threat of a new war in the Middle East, secrecy becomes vital again, disguising the presence of Israelis in Cherbourg and their destination for the twelve ships the Israeli government had ordered.
The situation behind the Cherbourg dilemma is factual, centering on the vessels built by the French for Israel and the shifting world politics that led the French government to deny delivery. Israeli agents, such as Sharon Bloomenthal, are sent to Cherbourg with an elaborate plan to obtain possession. In a postscript and an author’s note Carner explains the actual events surrounding the ships and her detailed research into the circumstances behind the Boats of Cherbourg. She even interviewed several of the people who played principal roles, some of them appearing as characters in the novel. But the fictional characters who dominate the action are Carner’s inventions.
The telling of the story is also Carner’s strategy as she entwines three plots featuring three main characters who eventually discover their relationship. Those connections are apparent to the reader who comes to know all their stories long before they do. It’s the characters who must learn, some after deliberate seeking, some from the quests of others. The energy of the plot lies in what the principal characters may find and if and how that will happen.
Sharon plays the most crucial role because she is the force deliberately seeking to know how past happenings connect to present people and events. Her need to discover, in effect, unifies the three central plots. Only twenty, mourning the loss of her fiancé whose Israeli ship sank, she is recruited by Daniel—Danny—Yarden to join his group in Cherbourg and help realize the strategy to obtain the Saar ships.
Sharon already knows she is the daughter of Judith Katz. But her mother and father were killed in the war of 1948 when Sharon was a baby, and the grandmother who raised her has little information about Judith. Sharon’s curiosity about her mother serves as the motivation behind her more organized effort to learn Danny’s background, especially when swimming on a Normandy beach, she discovers the star of David tattooed into his heel.
The story that alternates with Sharon’s in the first part of the novel is that of Claudette Pelletier, a young Catholic woman with a crippled leg, who lives with her grandmother in France’s Loire countryside. During the Nazis invasion of France and their impending arrival in Claudette’s village, the grandmother dies, but Claudette’s sewing skills give her a home on the nearby estate of a countess. There, helping to secrete a Jewish peddler and his son, she falls in love with the son and conceives a boy she calls Benjamin. After the baby’s birth, she has his heel tattooed with the star in honor of his father. That boy becomes Danny, lost to her when the Nazis occupy the estate and she must flee to Spain under the protection of the countess.
The third story doesn’t enter the novel until Part Two when Uri Yarden, who speaks no French, is sent from an Israel kibbutz to identify and gather Jewish children for secret transport to Eretz Israel. Although he is supposed to send only older children, he feels such great affection for the four-year-old with the star tattoo that he carries him aboard, eventually adopting him and raising him as a son.
Carner shows great skill in moving among these plot threads and ultimately integrating them into a convincing whole. Even though her readers will be far ahead of the characters in knowing the connections, she is able to maintain the suspense as she fuses vital human dramas with historical events.
In a final irony concerning the theme of secrecy and exposure, Sharon pledges never to reveal that Claudette, Danny’s mother, was not Jewish. Under the Orthodox dictates of Israel, only the offspring of Jewish mothers are recognized as Jewish. Danny, despite his heroic efforts for the nation, would be denied if the truth of his birth were known. Sharon protects him through yet another deception of identity.