The Book of Jonas: A Novel

( 16 )

Overview

Jonas is fifteen when his family is killed during an errant U.S. military operation in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. An international relief organization sends Jonas to America, where he struggles to assimilate—adapting to his foster family, high school, a first love. Jonas meets Rose Henderson, the mother of the U.S. soldier responsible for saving his life. Christopher Henderson disappeared after the raid that destroyed Jonas’s village, and Rose yearns to know the truth. ...

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The Book of Jonas: A Novel

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Overview

Jonas is fifteen when his family is killed during an errant U.S. military operation in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. An international relief organization sends Jonas to America, where he struggles to assimilate—adapting to his foster family, high school, a first love. Jonas meets Rose Henderson, the mother of the U.S. soldier responsible for saving his life. Christopher Henderson disappeared after the raid that destroyed Jonas’s village, and Rose yearns to know the truth. Gradually, a shocking and painful secret emerges.

In spare, evocative prose, debut novelist Stephen Dau crafts a virtuosic novel about memory, the terrible choices made during war, and what happens when foreign disaster arrives at our own doorstep.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
A Kirkus Reviews “Best of 2012” fiction selection
A School Library Journal “Best of 2012” Adult fiction for Teens selection
A Top-Ten favorite book of 2012 from Sam Sacks of The Wall Street Journal
A Booklist  Editor's Choice: Best Adult Books for Young Adults, 2012
 
"Dau sketches Jonas brilliantly, empathetically, writing with spare, clear language in the third person, a point of view encompassing the distance necessary for emotional clarity. Rich with symbolism, marvelously descriptive in language... Dau's novel offers deeply resonating truths about war and culture, about family and loss that only art can reveal. A literary tour de force."
- Kirkus Reviews (starred)
 
"A sobering and accomplished read meant to prick the conscience; highly recommended."
- Library Journal
 
"Intriguing characters reveal the effects of war on both victim and victimizer, and raise important questions about the emotional implications of modern warfare."
- Publishers Weekly
 
"The toll that war exacts has seldom been demonstrated more vividly in fiction than in this tale...With its spare prose and nuanced plot that loops back and forth chronologically, Dau's first novel is an absolutely compelling account of the damage done to all sides by armed conflict. An essential addition to the literature of war."
- Booklist
 
"Stephen Dau writes with remarkable precision, vitality and honesty."
- Steven Galloway, author of The Cellist of Sarajevo
 
“This is first rate, original, powerful storytelling.”
- Jean Thompson, National Book Award finalist and author of The Year We Left Home
 
“This is an utterly riveting debut.”
- Marisa Silver, author of The God of War
 
"The artfully crafted story zeroes in on those seconds when decisions are made, sometimes with terrifying consequences."
- Kathleen Daley, The Star Ledger (New Jersey)
 
“Dau does a beautiful job of creating tales shrouded in mystery, filled with pain and suffering … A modern, Citizen Kane like morality play about war, death, ordinary people, hope and forgiveness."
- Shelf Awareness
 
“[S]pare prose...enhances the remarkably meager body of 21st-century wartime literature and identifies Pittsburgh as a site of divine intervention....the embodiment of truth and a symbol of human frailty; a record of war, a labor of love, and a tangible connection to lost ideals.”
- Sandra Levis, Pittsburgh Quarterly
 
“A humane and unforgettable portrayal of the lives behind those casualty counts … Dau beautifully addresses a need to emotionally engage with a war that has been going on for 10 years but that so often feels remote and unreal … It is the first [novel of 2012] to feel genuinely important.
- Wall Street Journal
 
“Everything's a shock to the system for Jonas, a teenager from an unnamed Central Asian country, when he's granted asylum in the U.S. His struggles to assimilate and come to terms with his life — and the American soldier who saved it — make a story that could have been spun from yesterday's headlines.  But in Stephen Dau's careful hands, it touches the deepest truths of loss and healing.”
- Barnes & Noble
 
“Dau creates a disturbing portrayal of war as it destroys ideals and innocence and makes victims of civilians and soldiers alike. The novel is composed in a way that’s similar to how a painter creates with watercolors: with delicate, barely substantive layers that blend together to reveal depth, nuance, and meaning … Dau demonstrates the tragic paradoxes of war in this brilliant and deceptively simple novel that will provide ample discussion for high school classes studying Middle East conflicts.”
- School Library Journal
 
“In moments, Dau’s riffs on the young man’s life recall the dense beauty of Michael Ondaatje’s “The English Patient.’’ Like that book, [The Book of Jonas] is a tale obsessed with the way war can fracture memory and cauterize the place where love can begin....If only our news had such radical belief in the power of empathy.”
- John Freeman, The Boston Globe
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780452298972
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/26/2013
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 687,786
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen Dau is from Western Pennsylvania and lives in Brussels. He worked for ten years in post-war reconstruction and international development prior to studying creative writing, at Johns Hopkins University and Bennington, where he received an MFA. His work has appeared in McSweeney's, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, on MSNBC, and elsewhere. The Book of Jonas is his first novel.

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

Set against the background of war in the Middle East, The Book of Jonas tells the remarkably intertwined story of three figures fate and war have brought together: Fifteen–year–old Jonas, who fled when his village in an unnamed Middle Eastern country was destroyed in a U.S. attack; Christopher Henderson, the American soldier who follows Jonas into a cave and saves his life; and Christopher’s mother, Rose, who becomes an activist working to help other families who have lost sons and daughters in war.

The novel is told in a series of short chapters that alternate between Jonas’s past and present, Christopher’s journal entries, Jonas’s sessions with his therapist Paul, and the efforts of Christopher’s mother Rose to find the truth about her son, listed as Missing in Action. This structure creates a kaleidoscope of perspectives and layering of emotions, all in response to the same overwhelming facts of war.

After his entire family has been killed, Jonas is sent by an international aid agency to live in America. Ironically, or perhaps providentially, he lands in a suburb of Pittsburgh, near where Rose Henderson also lives. He struggles to fit in with his adoptive American family and their disconnected lives, their children who, when they periodically emerge from their fog of video games and self–absorption, barely notice Jonas. Indeed, the daughter pats him on the head like a pet dog. At school he is mercilessly bullied until he fights back with a viciousness that lands him in therapy.

There, in response to his therapist Paul’s insistent questioning, the story of Jonas’s traumatic past begins to emerge. The savage, vengeful attack on his village; the death of his entire family, including his seven–year–old sister; his escape to a cave his father had prepared; and his meeting with Christopher. At first, telling his story, even in the barest outline, only makes things worse. After a visit to Rose where he offers a severely truncated version of what he knows about her son’s possible fate, Jonas takes his budding alcoholism to another level, engaging in binge drinking that leads to blackouts, fights with his girlfriend, academic suspension, and eventual arrest.

But it also leads Jonas to reopen the journal Christopher left him. The entries recorded in it—heartfelt, soul–searching, self–questioning—cast a new light on all that has come before, the actions of both Christopher and Jonas, and the larger trajectory of their lives. As Jonas finally seeks recovery from his alcohol addiction, his AA sponsor asks him if he thinks there is a higher plan at work in his life, if he was brought to America for a reason. And indeed, the novel itself seems to pose that question to the reader: Are the events of Jonas’s life random or guided by an unseen power?

The Book of Jonas is remarkable both for the story it tells and the way it tells it. Christopher and Jonas each commit acts that would seem to invite judgment, but Stephen Dau is much more interested in investigating the causes of their actions—and the extraordinary consequences that result from the unlikely intersection of their lives—than in moral condemnation. And by so deftly exploring the inner lives of Jonas, Christopher, and Rose—the torments each has suffered—The Book of Jonasoffers a nuanced and deeply reflective novel about the effects of war that are still unfolding around us.

ABOUT STEPHEN DAU

Stephen Dau is originally from western Pennsylvania. He worked for ten years in postwar reconstruction and international development before studying creative writing at Johns Hopkins University and Bennington College, where he received an MFA. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s and the Pittsburgh Post–Gazette, on MSNBC, and elsewhere. Dau lives in Brussels, Belgium, with his family. The Book of Jonas is his first novel.

A CONVERSATION WITH STEPHEN DAU

Q. Why did you give the book’s sectional titles religious resonances: Processional, Invocation, Remembrance, Communion, Confession, Atonement, Benediction, Recessional? Did you intend the book to have an essentially religious trajectory and for readers to consider the parallels between the novel’s protagonist and the biblical Jonah?

I’ve heard someone say that it’s reminiscent of a Catholic mass. I was brought up Presbyterian, and so it reminds me of a Presbyterian church service. Part of this device is practical. The story needed a structure, and the structure of a religious service allows for a certain amount of flexibility while still imposing an overall form. Beyond practical considerations, I came to see the book, or at least the act of writing it, a little bit like a prayer. That is the best way I can describe it. The religious imagery flowed out of that. The idea of sacrifice flowed out of that. The section titles flowed out of that. That’s the best explanation I can give for it. It’s a sort of prayer.

Q. How has your work in postwar reconstruction and international development influenced the writing of The Book of Jonas?

Working in development certainly influenced my fiction, mostly by giving me access to the practical, immediate effects of war on real people. After going to Sarajevo, I could no longer see people on the news reports as abstractions. It’s probably only natural that I started writing about them. But I wouldn’t call my fiction an extension of that work, other than to say that my interests and outlook now are similar to what they were then. Fiction is more creative, reflective, and documentary. It tries to mold reality, alter it, fit it into a manageable shape, and present it back to the reader as some sort of complete experience. In contrast, reconstruction or development seeks to deal with a specific situation to achieve a specific goal. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive endeavors, but they are not at all the same.

Q. This is your first novel. Could you talk about your process in writing, revising, and publishing it? Did you begin it while in the MFA program at Bennington College?

I had the idea for what would eventually become the book a few years before I went to Bennington, but I hadn’t done much with it. I went there with the intention of working on it more–or–less exclusively and coming out the other side with a complete (or relatively complete) manuscript. In terms of publishing it, I’ve been through my share of rejection, and have received some silly suggestions (“It would be more interesting re–written in first person,” or “You should name him Jimmy”). But I’ve been really lucky. I have a lot of writer friends who can swap horror stories about their publishing experiences. But ever since I signed up with my agent, Henry Dunow, who sold the book to Sarah Hochman at Blue Rider Press, I have had none to share. I could not have hoped to be in such good hands.

Q. How were you able to imaginatively identify with characters so seemingly unlike yourself: Jonas, a victim of war who has lost his entire family, and Christopher, a font–line soldier who has seen a lot of combat? Did you do a lot of research for the book?

I would research subjects as they came up. If I had a question, I’d either look it up or I’d talk to people. I did the research as a part of the writing, rather than something separate from it. So, for me the work was all tied up in the same bundle. The writing of it went along with the research of it, which went along with the rewriting of it in this effort to try and get it to look like what I wanted it to look like. In terms of imagining myself in those situations, I get the impression it’s a lot like what actors do. A friend of mine who’s an actor talks about allowing himself to live fully in an imagined world. I guess that’s sort of what I did, except I reported back on it in written form, rather than acting it out.

Q. What is your personal view of America’s involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq? Do you feel American writers have an obligation to address, or at least acknowledge, these wars in their work?

As you can probably guess, I thought the U.S. invasion of Iraq was one of the stupidest things the country has done in the past fifty years or so. We’ve only now, ten years on, seen the first real wave of fiction to come out of these wars. That’s a process that I think will go on. Afghanistan is now the longest–running war in U.S. history. As a country, America hasn’t really even begun to deal with what it’s been doing, and will be working through the fallout of these wars for years, probably generations, to come. I think the fiction will continue to reflect that. But I would never presume to tell other writers what their work should acknowledge or address.

Q. Why did you choose not to specify the country Jonas is from?

There are probably two reasons for leaving Jonas’s home country vague. One of them is very practical: I didn’t feel like I knew any one place well enough to stick a flag in the ground and say, ”This is where Jonas is from.” Unless you know a place very well, everyone who’s been there, and everyone who lives there currently, will inevitably have more information about that place than you do, especially if it’s some place you’ve just visited. You have to get it exactly, absolutely right, and I didn’t feel like I knew any plausible place well enough to be able to get it that right. The second, and probably more important, reason for leaving it vague is the fact that this is a story that could have happened in lots of different places, and so not specifically saying where it happens allows it to have happened in many places. It allows for a certain universality.

Q. Early in the novel, Jonas’s therapist, Paul, tells Jonas that “The past is gone, done. You memories can’t physically hurt you. But we need to explore them. We need to understand what happened” [p. 15]. How helpful do you think therapy can be for people like Jonas, as well as for returning soldiers suffering PTSD?

Therapy is only as helpful as the amount of honest work and self–examination one is willing to put into it. There seems to be a conception in the West, and in the United States in particular, that therapy is like a pill or medical treatment, as in, “Why don’t you go get some therapy and get yourself sorted out?” Like it’s an aspirin. But therapy is really only a tool or method of self–examination. If one is unwilling to do the often painful work involved, it won’t be much help at all. However, it can be incredibly helpful if one is willing to engage with it.

Q. Have you heard from soldiers, war victims, or activists like Rose in response to your book?

I have heard from quite a few. With one exception, they have all been incredibly supportive and seem to immediately understand the book and what it is trying to do. I am very grateful that they take the time to reach out to me.

Q. When Jonas is telling his story to Rose, he reflects that he’s not lying about the image of the moonlight, “at least, no more so than anyone who tells a story . . . The difficulty, he realizes, is inherent in the use of both words and memory. Their imprecision combines to make it nearly impossible for him to tell a true story” [p. 108]. Are all stories intrinsically “untrue”? In what sense does The Book of Jonas tell a “true story”?

There is a concept in quantum physics that I think is fascinating. If scientists are studying certain particles, they find that the act of observing them changes their properties. I think, as a concept, this applies to memories and to stories, at least in terms of effect, if not necessarily the mechanics behind it. The story I’ve told is not exactly the same as the story you’ve read, because you’ve brought a set of experiences and conceptions to the reading that are completely different from mine, and different from everyone else who has or will read it. Your perceptions are entirely unique. So I don’t know if “true” is the right word for it, because that word implies a measurable, objective reality. Maybe “honest” is better, because there’s an amount of subjectivity built into that word. The Book of Jonas is entirely made up. It’s fiction. As such, it’s literally untrue. But when I wrote it, it was the most honest story I was capable of telling.

Q. What’s it like being an American writer in Belgium? Do you feel detached from the American literary scene?

I do feel almost entirely detached from the American literary scene. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, though. It’s nice to be able to dip into it occasionally, and then dip right back out of it again. I feel a little bit like a foreigner when I visit America now, and I think that might give me a slightly different perspective on things, looking at the country from outside the echo chamber. I’ve lived in Europe for eight years now, so a lot of the cultural references that I would have once shared are disappearing or are dated. But again, I don’t think that’s bad. It seems to give my writing a certain objectivity that it probably wouldn’t have if I had remained in the U.S.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • The narrative of The Book of Jonas proceeds in short chapters, jump–cuts between Jonas’s present life, his past, Christopher’s journal entries, his interactions with his therapist, and chapters devoted to Rose’s efforts on behalf of the families of soldiers missing in action. What is the effect of this layering of different perspectives and time frames? How would the novel have been different if told in a continuous, chronological, single point–of–view narrative?
  • What strikes the newly transplanted Jonas most strongly about American culture and his host family in particular? How is Jonas treated at school? What does Jonas’s outsider perspective reveal about aspects of American culture and family life that most of us simply take for granted?
  • Why does Christopher follow Jonas when he flees from the village American forces have just destroyed? He says that Jonas was “simply trying to get out. Same as me” [p. 219]. What is Christopher trying to get out of?
  • Christopher writes in his journal about seeing a lioness caring for a baby gazelle [p. 123-126]. Why does this scene affect him so strongly? In what ways is the situation of the lioness and the gazelle analogous to Christopher and Jonas’s relationship?
  • Before he commits an act of stunning violence, Jonas thinks: “What will happen is what must happen, what is fated to happen. What has been decided” [p. 239]. Indeed, he feels it has been set up to happen. Is he right in thinking this act is fated, that he has in fact been invited to commit it, or is he merely justifying what he’s done?
  • In what ways are both Christopher and Jonas motivated by vengeance? Do they each come to some ability to forgive, themselves and others, by the novel’s end?
  • The soldiers who remember Christopher describe him as wise and compassionate, a calming presence somewhat aloof from the rage of war. How does that picture differ from the way Christopher describes himself and his actions in the war? How does he come to view the war and his part in it?
  • Why does Jonas decide to send Christopher’s journal back to Rose? How is reading it likely to affect her? The last line of the novels asserts that she “is free” [p. 256], but what is she free of?
  • Does Jonas’s troubling behavior—his violent attack on the bully at school, his drinking binges, blackouts, academic suspension, and eventual arrest—ultimately have any positive consequences?
  • Jonas’s AA sponsor asks him if he thinks there might be a larger plan at work in his life, that he was brought here for a reason? How does Jonas react to this question, and to religious ways of seeing the world generally? Does it seem as if he’s been brought here to fulfill a higher purpose or divine plan? What would that purpose or larger plan be?
  • What aspects of the American wars in the Middle East does The Book of Jonas illuminate? In what ways does it deepen our understanding of how these wars affect not only civilians but American soldiers as well?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 16 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 16 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 19, 2012

    Fifteen year old Jonas is sent to America after his village is


    Fifteen year old Jonas is sent to America after his village is attacked and his family killed in the Middle East. Adjusting to his new life is challenging to say the least and he is required to see a therapist when it is apparent that things aren’t going well. In an attempt to heal he meets the mother of the U.S. Soldier that saved his life and he starts to open up about what really happened when his village was attacked. Secrets that Jonas has struggled with and protected for years suffocate the details that he will share.
    This is one of those stories that will stay with me forever. As a military wife I read this with open eyes about war and what it does to people, so I was surprised by the accuracy because usually people overdo it and get it wrong. Jonas’ character was so rich and clear that I felt like I knew him and I could easily sympathize with him. The emotion of the story was so realistic that I felt this story just as much as I read it, which doesn’t happen as much as I would like. Needless to say, this was a hard one to put down even when I read the last page. I will not be able to recommend this one enough.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 22, 2012

    Highly recommended

    Great book

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 5, 2014

    Jonas

    How about katherine?

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  • Posted January 19, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    This heart wrenching novel is captivating from start to finish.

    This heart wrenching novel is captivating from start to finish. Reading the book, I felt like I was there with the main character, Jonas, and was so anxious to get to the end and figure the whole story out. I liked that the book was not specific to a certain country and did not take sides, allowing the reader to really empathize with all of the characters. It’s a quick read, but definitely one that is worth it.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2012

    I could not get through this book as hard as I tried.

    I am a voracious reader, but this one was a struggle to read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 14, 2012

    I absolutely loved this book. I enjoyed the writing style of the

    I absolutely loved this book. I enjoyed the writing style of the author. The emotions that all of the characters felt, especially Jonas and Christopher, were made real and I felt that I could identify with them right away. I would definitely read it again.

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  • Posted July 10, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    this is a very touching story of a journal of those who have ser

    this is a very touching story of a journal of those who have served in a war, how the dealt with all the pyschological aftermath and as well as the trials and turbulations they went through. I have to admit at some parts I got a little lost and confused, but I think it was for other reasons then the book. I had a long wait for the book so I would consider reading it again.

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  • Posted June 15, 2012

    Simply put ... to the point - an evocative tale of war and choic

    Simply put ... to the point - an evocative tale of war and choices. It is prose which gives perspective to recent events and the long-term effects of decisions we make.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 13, 2012

    Couldn't put it down

    A character driven story written from the point of view of a young refugee who was sent to live in America after being found injured after an American attack on his village, in a presumably middle eastern country.
    The journey he takes to come to terms with his own actions and the those of his rescuer are a compelling look into what happens to individuals when faced with the impossible choices of war: group pressure and individual responsibility, and how it affects us and those around us.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 8, 2012

    Great story that challenges the reader...

    I loved this story from start to finish. As a veteran i found myself able to identify with Christopher, a soldier who saves Jonas life; and I was challenged to see the perspective of the civilian in war through Jonas. I was found myself so engrossed in the novel that i had read it cover to cover in one sitting. I would say this is a must read for anyone who knows someone affected by war, or if you yourself were. I look forward to more work from this author.

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  • Posted April 6, 2012

    A Stunning Debut Novel

    I consider The Book of Jonas no less than a stunning, masterful piece of work. It’s hard to believe that it’s a debut novel. Stephen Dau is able to weave together a compassionate picture of the many victims of war and how their lives intersect regardless of geological location, nationality, religion, gender or age. I do not profess to be a reader of “war stories,” and generally stay clear of violence in my reading. This book deserves far better than to be pigeon holed into any simplistic category. It is far too sensitive. It stretches the reader to think outside the box. The beauty and symbolism throughout took my breath away. For the first time in many years, I have bought multiple copies of a book to give friends.

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  • Posted March 21, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Just wow.

    That's all I can saw is wow. This book is amazing and totally worth a read, not once but twice or even more then that. Every little word in this book is worth it. Stephen Dau is one of the best authors I have ever been blessed to read. For his first time, he blew it out of the water. And again, all I can say is wow.

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    Posted December 27, 2012

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    Posted November 14, 2012

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    Posted May 24, 2012

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    Posted May 14, 2012

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