An Island of Intolerance

In the era of the cataclysmic Flood, society is ruled by the totalitarian Corporation.

The Other Side of the Island, by Allegra GoodmanRazorbill / Penguin, 288 pages, $9 (paperback )(Hebrew edition, translated from the English by Yosifia Simon. Yedioth Books, 333 pages, NIS 78 )

We are told not to judge a book by its cover, and this axiom certainly applies to the Hebrew version of Jewish American author Allegra Goodman's "The Other Side of the Island." It's an exciting and thought-provoking science-fiction allegory for young adults, but you wouldn't know that from looking at the book jacket.

The cover art is a photograph of a girl at sunset. She is standing barefoot on the beach. Her hair is loose and she is wearing a summery skirt and tank top, with a strip of bathing suit discernible underneath. What does that have to do with the Orwellian universe described in the book?

Whereas the U.S. book jacket from 2008 shows a close-up of a frightened girl, with the hint of a storm behind her, the Israeli jacket reminds the target audience of "The Island," an Israeli soap opera for children. But the book "The Other Side of the Island" is completely different.

In the world described by Goodman, there are only three-member families (the restriction on family size is somewhat reminiscent of Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" ). The northern area of the island, which is not enclosed, is somewhat reminiscent of the threatening wilderness of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road":

"The houses stood alone on wooded islands. There were no neighbors," writes Goodman. Referring to the parents of Honor, the main protagonist, she adds: "When Pamela saw people coming through her binoculars, she would tell Will ?We have visitors.' Then it was time to move again."

Most of all, this book is reminiscent of "1984." But Big Brother isn't the one keeping a watchful eye on all residents; in Goodman's world, every house has a framed picture of Earth Mother.

In the dystopia at this novel's heart, there is a totalitarian organization called the Corporation, which has assumed control over the residents of the "island" that used to be North America. Using food and water that have been drugged (to help people to forget the past ), fear (which has seized the public since the Flood, an updated version of the biblical deluge ), word laundering and a lot of propaganda, the Corporation trains and subdues the citizens.

At the beginning of the story, our heroine, Honor, is 10 years old, and her family has been brought back from the Northern Islands to Island 365. They live near the beach, a place for the inferior people, in moldy houses threatened by the danger of a real or threatened tsunami, but they aspire to live in a high and hilly place.

In this world, it is permitted to have only one child, and he or she must be given a name that begins with the letter for that year. The letter for Honor's year of birth was "H," but her parents tried to outsmart the system and chose a name with a silent H. (The meaning of her name is another hint of her parents' rebelliousness. ) They also violate the daily curfew, insist on remembering at least one thing from their past every day, and dare to bring another child into the world.

Numbers on their arms

Honor, who aspires to accuracy, the supreme attribute in the world of the Corporation, is disturbed by the fact that her parents are Unpredictable, the greatest shame. This switching of roles between parents and children is refreshing.

The island's school library has books suited for everyone, but they unfold somewhat differently than their authors originally intended them to. They have been rewritten, and have had pages torn out. For example, in the censored "Wizard of Oz," Dorothy arrives in Oz after dreaming about it rather than after being blown away in a tornado. This is because storms and natural disasters, as well as the seasons themselves, have been deliberately erased from the awareness of the island's children.

In this place ruled by Earth Mother, there are no prohibitions, only things that are Not Allowed, and the torture chamber is a place of Persuasive Reasoning and Positive Reinforcement.

Even worse are the orderlies, zombielike people whose identity has been taken away from them, menial laborers who have numbers tattooed on their arms. The author, who grew up in Hawaii and whose earlier novels, including "Kaaterskill Falls" (2000 ), explored a range of aspects of Jewish life, is certainly aware of the historical precedent of tattooing, no less than she is of Heinrich Heine's famous statement about places where books are burned (though in this case they are only ripped to shreds ).

Her book is exciting, and even if it relies too heavily on coincidence and the ending is somewhat too pat, the world she has created is fascinating.

But what is this allegory trying to say about our times? It's not clear whether this is a cautionary plea against harming the environment or a warning that a militant attitude toward preserving it is liable to exact too high a price. What the book definitely does promote -- and it's good to encounter this in a book for young adults -- is free thought, a search for the truth, a critical examination of ideological thinking, and most important, a conclusion that is also the motto of resistance in this dystopian world: "Knowledge is power."

Ruta Kupfer is a cultural correspondent for Haaretz.

Haaretz Books, April 2010,