Matti Friedman, acclaimed journalist and author, brings all of his extensive skills as a writer and researcher to his latest book, Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story. Part memoir, part history, Pumpkinflowers reads as a deeply personal documentary, as Friedman recounts his experience as a soldier in the Israeli army, serving on a base just inside of Lebanon in the mid- 1990s. His story is like a series of snapshots, capturing the minutiae of daily military life, as the photographer tries to arrange them in order, and use them to make sense of the international events that made each of these moments possible.In Pumpkinflowers, Friedman has created a living memory of this outpost and the soldiers who lived and died there.
As both a former Israeli soldier and journalist, the Canadian-born Friedman is uniquely positioned to straddle the insider-outsider viewpoint that makes this book so engaging. Friedman appeals as a kind of “every soldier” – drafted according to the law of the land, and recognizing that he is stationed on that Lebanese mountaintop as a result of some random bureaucratic decision making. Friedman contrasts the routine of every day life, the monotonous routine tasks needed to keep a troop of eighteen and nineteen year old boys supplied and as safe as possible in an active war zone, and the days and moments when the reality of being at war takes center stage. The soldiers spend days and night waiting for something to happen, and then after something does happen, something generally chaotic and potentially lethal, everyone goes right back to waiting. He reflects the thoughts of these young men who simultaneously wonder, and completely understand, what they are doing up there anyway.
Not surprisingly, Friedman’s memoir has many of the hallmarks of a coming of age story. He, along with the men he served with, were drafted right out of high school. With the conflict’s geography being so incredibly compact, the relationships between the young recruits and their families, the ideas of independence, maturity, and home, become essential to understanding the soldier’s experience. Similarly, the tininess of the Israeli population makes the story of any individual soldier the story of a larger community. In Friedman’s telling, every soldier is your neighbor’s son, your nephew’s best friend, the grandson of the woman your great-aunt fought with as a partisan during WWII. Everyone, including Friedman’s parents, are people in the neighborhood, practically within view of the military events Friedman talks about in this book. The intimacy of this reality, combined with Friedman’s descriptive prose, packs an exceptionally strong emotional punch.
The single disappointment with the book is that Friedman didn’t include a historical timeline as a reference tool. As Friedman’s writing is very much about a particular time and place in Israeli and Middle Eastern history, and he refers to these events regularly, the ability to refer back to a few main dates and places could allow the reader a deeper contextual understanding of the conflict. Friedman’s objectivity in describing the conflict is almost heroic. His temperate and sometimes understated language promotes a more universal message about the meaning of war. Readers looking for a passionate defense of one side or the other will have to look elsewhere.
Pumpkinflowers will be best appreciated by readers with some historical background on the Israeli-Lebanese conflict and Hezbollah, and a connection to military personnel, Israeli, or otherwise. An excellent book club selection, this book will inspire members to share their stories of Middle Eastern travel, memories of hearing news from this and other international wars, and the important events that shaped their political and religious identities. The clarity of Friedman’s writing makes this a must-read book for any aspiring journalist and story teller.