Diana Spechler's recently released novel Who By Fire addresses complex issues. Thirteen years after his sister disappeared, protagonist Ash Kellerman flees to take on the life of an Orthodox
Jew in Israel. His other sister Bits and his mother Ellie both try to bring him back, each in their own way. Alternating between these three characters, we see the traumatized family from diverse angles. Publisherís Weekly says the book ďraises provocative questions about religion, violence and the resilience of families and individuals,Ē and the Jerusalem Post calls it ďa book that we could all learn from.Ē
Hereís the start of Chapter One:
April 12, 2002
Iím sitting in Friday evening rush-hour traffic, staring out the window at the Charles River, and listening to the news. A bomb detonated in Jerusalem. A man speaks in panicked Hebrew. Another man talks over him in English: ďHow are we supposed to live like this?Ē they say in overlapping languages.
Itís been eleven months since Ash clapped a yarmulke on his head, dropped out of college, went missing, and then one week later turned out not to be missing. Where he turned out to be was Israel, at a yeshiva, ready to spend the rest of his life studying Judaism. (Judaism! In Israel! A real pioneer, my brother.)
I call Ash from my cell phone and get his voicemail. Ashís voicemail annoys me. Itís in Hebrew, for one thing, which is absurd considering he almost didnít get to have a bar mitzvah because he wouldnít learn his Torah portion. I donít know Hebrew, but I can tell by the way he speaks it that itís not right. It sounds distinctly American. In his message, he calls himself Asher. Thatís what he goes by now.
Maybe heís traveling. His last letter said something about traveling during Passover vacation. Is it still Passover vacation? Iím trying to remember that letter, but I can only remember the package that he sent with it: dried prunes, dried apricots, bright orange sticks of dried papaya.
On his voicemail, I say, ďIsnít this getting a little ridiculous? Isnít it about time to come home?Ē I donít hang up right away. I listen to the silence in the phone, half-expecting an answer and hating the feeling. You can waste your whole life half-expecting the impossible.
* * * *
The phone is ringing when I get to my apartment, and I know itís Ash. I can feel him sometimes.
But itís not Ash. Itís my mother, calling from New Jersey because she just heard the news.
ďI canít reach him,Ē I tell her. ďBut Iím trying. Donít worry.Ē
ďBits,Ē she says, ďdonít do this. Donít do this to me.Ē
ďIím sure heís fine,Ē I say. ďDonít cry.
ďYouíre sure? Here Iím about to have an attack, and youíre sure! Call his yeshiva,Ē she says.
I sit on the kitchen floor and lean back against the stove, propping the soles of my feet on the refrigerator door that Iíve never decorated. My apartment, in general, is kind of austere. Iíve just never known whose pictures to display, what sort of artwork I love enough to live with. Looking out my window at Allston, at the Citgo sign flashing and the traffic Iím not sitting in and the umbrellas in a million different colors on rainy daysÖitís enough for me. How much can a person ask from a place? ďIím not calling his yeshiva, Mom.Ē I tell her that we should keep the lines free, in case Ash calls us. You can still convince my mother that she needs to do things like keep the lines free. ďGood Shabbos,Ē I say, even though thatís not the kind of thing I say.
My mother says, ďWhatís so good about it?Ē
Once I hang up, the gnawing feeling hits, like Iíve forgotten to do something or Iím supposed to be somewhere. Itís the feeling I used to get as a child, when my mother would stand at the kitchen sink, her back to me, screaming at the window, ďWhere is she? Where the hell is she? Just tell me that!Ē Itís an anxiety that my mother still ignites in me, although itís not about Alena anymore; these days, itís about Ash.
A familiar urge starts poking at me like a finger. Donít call Wade, I tell myself. Donít start cruising through chat rooms. Chat rooms are for weirdos. Sociopaths. Child pornographers. Do something else. Anything else. I drag the vacuum cleaner into my bedroom and turn it on, but Iím afraid I wonít hear the phone ring, so I turn it off. I should exercise. Exercise is supposed to be calming. But Iím not much of an exerciser. After ten pushups, I canít go on. I lie on my stomach, listening to my heart beat through the carpet. I get up and pick up the phone.
Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins. For more information on Diana and her book, visit dianaspechler.com. Find Who By Fire online at bn.com.