The Song of the Whales by Uri Orlev, Hillel Halkin (Translator)

As you obviously know by now, I am a hopeless book addict reader. As such I am incapable of going into to a library without checking out books. To make it easier on myself, and to please my family, I mostly check out children’s, young adult and short story type books.  That way there are not large stacks of books making me feel guilty because I know I will never read them all.

It was on one such library trip recently that I saw The Song of the Whales.  The combination of the cover and the blurb had me intrigued.

Michael’s grandfather has a secret—a secret that’s almost too strange to share . . .

When Michael moves to Israel, he leaves loneliness behind and steps into the light of his grandfather’s magic. Like a sorcerer’s apprentice, Michael learns how to blur the lines between dreams and reality when his grandfather hands down the most precious of gifts—a gift that allows Michael passage into his grandfather’s dreams.

Written with a quiet simplicity that wins the reader over at once Uri Orlev writes in a style so sure and yet so unassuming that it is certain to linger in reader’s minds long after turning the last page.

Turned out to be an interesting and at times moving exploration of friendship, love, loneliness, death and family (not as cliche as it sounds).  It jumps around a bit and doesn’t always flow smoothly but it has an appropriate dreamlike quality and the central relationship is quite touching.

The book moves in something like three stages. We have a slow moving get to know Michael and his family stage, a Michael in Israel and gets to know his grandfather and his housekeeper stage and we have the action and conclusion stage.  The first stage is a meandering one where we get a glimpse of Michael’s personality and family dynamics. He is a loner, shy and a bit odd even. He seems to relate to adults more than peers. His parents are busy and distracted and wonder why he can’t be more like “normal” kids.

In the second stage we see how Michael and his grandfather connect and relate to each other the tension is introduced in the form of the housekeeper.  The pace picks up a bit and the mystery is introduced.

And then suddenly the actions seem to come quite quickly and almost suddenly the story is over.

This doesn’t all quite fit together to my mind.  But there is a simplicity and straightforwardness to the story that gives it a natural and human feel.  Michael and his family are quirky in the way that real families are and his interactions with adults are endearing and sometimes poignant.

There is a surrealist or magical realism element which is mysterious and hard to pin down.  And there is an otherworldly or dreamlike feel to the story that matches the plot. It also puts some distance between the reader and the difficult issues of love and death of family and relationships.  For younger readers I imagine this is a good thing.

Michael’s personality began to grow on me and I found the relationship between him and his grandfather touching.  At a time when they both needed it, they found a friendship.  At the same time, Michael is able to understand his family more and begin to grow up and see the world with a wider lens.

I am not sure how middle grade readers would react to it, but I found it to be an interesting, if slightly odd, read.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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