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Matti and Maya live in a remote village in which there are no animals. Not a dog, cat, cow or bird; not fish nor bug nor worm. Did Nehi the Demon curse the village, and is he still a menacing presence? A collective wall of silence has been erected, reflecting a willful, selective memory. The community has a dynamic of bullying and cruelty, so those few that do speak of it are vilified and have retreated into bizarre eccentricity. Matti and Maya have actually seen a fish, sensed a bird in flight and had other experiences that gave them the impetus to search out the answers. Oz takes this dark, strange, otherworldly tale many layers deeper. Although the language is lovely, with many striking images, it is also often esoteric and obscuring. The narrator is an omniscient observer who tends to sermonize. Repetition and reiteration are deliberately employed, with several bits of plot and character descriptions reappearing almost word for word throughout the work. Even Matti and Maya often feel a sense of déjà vu. They might forget again, or they might break the cycle. Is the work fantasy, fable or allegory? In the end, after all the strangeness, the moral is rather obvious, but maybe young readers need to hear it. Flawed, but intriguing and unusual. (Fiction. 10-14)
Emanuella the Teacher described to the class what a bear looks like, how fish breathe, and the kind of sounds a hyena makes at night. She also hung pictures of animals and birds on the classroom walls. Most of the children made fun of her, because they’d never seen an animal in their lives. Many of them didn’t quite believe there were such creatures in the world. At least not around here, they said. Besides, that teacher never found anyone in the whole village who had wanted to marry her, they said, and that’s why her head was full of foxes, sparrows, all sorts of things people think up when they’re lonely.
Emanuella’s descriptions had only a minor effect on the children, except for Little Nimi, who began to dream about animals at night. Most of his classmates laughed at him when, first thing in the morning, he told them how the brown shoes he’d put next to his bed before he went to sleep had turned into two hedgehogs in the dark and crawled around the room all night, but in the morning, when he opened his eyes, they were just a pair of shoes next to his bed again. Another time, black bats came to his room at midnight and carried him off on their wings, flew through the walls of the house up into the sky above the village and over mountains and forests till they brought him to an enchanted castle.
Nimi had a muddled brain and a constantly runny nose. He also had a large gap between his prominent front teeth. The children called that gap the garbage dump.
Every morning Nimi would come to class and begin telling everyone about a new dream, and every morning they would say enough, we’re sick and tired of you, shut that garbage dump of yours. And when he didn’t stop, they made fun of him. But instead of being offended, Nimi would join in the ridicule. He would breathe in his snot and swallow it, and, brimming over with joy, would call himself the most insulting names the children had given him: garbage dump, fuzzy- brain, hedgehog- shoes.
More than once, Maya, daughter of Lilia the Baker, had whispered to Nimi from her seat behind him in class: Nimi. Listen. Dream about whatever you want, animals, girls, but keep it to yourself. Don’t tell anyone. It just isn’t a good idea.
Matti said to Maya, You don’t understand. The only reason Nimi has those dreams is so he can tell us about them. And anyway, he doesn’t stop dreaming even when he wakes up in the morning.
Everything delighted Nimi, anything made him happy: the cracked mug in the kitchen and the full moon in the sky, Emanuella’s necklace and his own buck teeth, the buttons he forgot to button and the wind howling in the forest. Nimi found fun in everything there was and in anything that happened. And the least little thing was enough to make him burst out laughing.
Until the day he ran out of class, out of the village, and climbed up to the forest alone. Most of the village people searched for him for two or three days. The police searched for another week or ten days. After that, only his parents and sister kept looking. He came back three weeks later, thin and filthy, all scratched and bruised, but whooping with joy and excitement. And Little Nimi has been whooping ever since and has never spoken again: he hasn’t said a single word since he came back from the forest; he just wanders around the village streets barefoot and ragged, his nose running, baring his teeth and the gap between them, skipping from one backyard to another, climbing trees and poles, whooping all the time, his right eye constantly watering because of his allergy.
He couldn’t go back to school now that he had whoopitis. On their way home, the children would whoop at him on purpose to make him whoop back. They called him Nimi the Owl. The doctor said it would pass with time: perhaps there, in the forest, something had frightened or shocked him, and now he had whoopitis. Maya said to Matti: Shouldn’t we do something? Try to help him? And Matti replied: No, Maya. They’ll get tired of it soon. They’ll forget about him soon. When the children chased him off with their mockery and the pinecones and pieces of bark they threw at him, Little Nimi would run away, whooping. He’d climb the closest tree and from up in the high branches he would whoop at them again, with his one weepy eye and his buck teeth. And sometimes even in the middle of the night, the villagers thought they heard the distant echo of his whooping in the dark.
Posted June 29, 2011
I found Suddenly in the Depths of the Forest very charming, and reminiscent of an old cautionary fairy tale. There are hints of mystery and fantasy mixed in, and the characters are young, making it perfect for older middle-grade students.
The plot is unique; it's different from anything I have read, and Amos Oz shows his skill by creating a message about life: that we should not ridicule those who are different. He also brings up a very important question about human nature...which I would include, but it would be a spoiler.
The book has been translated from Hebrew (I believe) into English, and there isn't a lot of punctuation (and no quotation marks) because of that. It was disorienting at first, but after a few pages, I discovered that it reads like it would be spoken by a storyteller: with inflection, whispering, and timing. I fell in love with the way the words fit together. Really, it is beautiful, and the perfect bedtime story.
My only reason for not giving the story five stars, is that I still had unanswered questions at the end...which I think was done on purpose, but I would have liked answers. Still, I recommend this book for middle-grade students interested in fables.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Posted March 8, 2011
"Suddenly In the Depths of the Forest" by award winning Israeli author Amos Oz (archive) is a short novel which you can read to your kids. Oz set out to write a folk tale and succeeded in more ways than one.
Once upon a time there was a village. The village had no animals, no cows, dogs or pigs, not even worms, fish or spiders. None of the adults are willing to speak about that catastrophe and at night they bolt their doors of fear from Nehi, the Mountain Demon who is blamed for their misfortune.
No one dares go into the mountain except two kids Maya and Matti which.you'll have to read for yourself.
"Suddenly In the Depths of the Forest" by Amos Oz has more of a European feel to it (forests, mountains, streams) than an Israeli one. While this is a story for children, adults will certainly enjoy this multi-layered fable.
According to the book, Oz based this story on fables he remembers from his childhood told him by his mother. He thinks that was the way his mother (who committed suicide before she reached the age of 40) communicated.
Mr. Oz certainly put a lot of thought into the symbolism in this book. The story could be about being exiled from the Promised Land or about the holocaust, a terrible past of vanished creatures. There is a society based on lying, a voyage into a dangerous land away from home.
We never find out though, the ending is left open with no single truth found, as is most of life.
Great job by translator Sondra Silverston who managed, somehow, to translate the feel of anxiety as well as the humor.
Posted April 5, 2012
No text was provided for this review.