Suddenly in the Depths of the Forest
By Amos Oz
Translated by Sondra Silverston
Harcourt Children's Books, 2011, 134 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - April 1, 2011
This delightful tale is recommended for young people ages 10 to 14, but adults can enjoy and profit from it as well. This is Amos Oz's second children's book, his twenty-second volume. Oz is one of the three top writers in Israel. The other two are A. B. Yehoshua and David Grossman. All of their books are finely crafted literature with lyrical language and striking images, not books written just to thrill and entertain.
There is a small village at the end of the world, or so it seems, which has only rare visits by people from the outside and where no animals, birds, or fish were seen since the children's fathers and mothers were children. The villagers are sad and lonely, yet they find time to mock people who are different from them. Emanuella the village teacher describes animals to the children so that they can remember, but this makes the children laugh, and they mock her. Surely no beings like these could exist. They also mock Maya's mother who lays out bread crumbs on the ground for the birds to eat and tosses crumbs in the ponds for the fish for food if they return. Parents refuse to talk about animals, birds, and fish, though they miss them. Something happened in a single night a generation ago that caused them to disappear, to walk, crawl, fly, and swim away.
Parents tell their children in hushed fearful voices that it is Nehi the Demon, who swarms down upon them at night, who caused the flight. They warn their children not to leave their homes at night so that they too would not vanish. They warn them also not to enter the forest because Nehi is there. The villagers bar and chain their doors at night against Nehi the Demon.
But two children, Maya, an inquisitive girl, and Matti, a somewhat less courageous boy, see a small silvery fish swimming in a pond, and then they know that such creatures do exist. They decide to find the truth. And so one day the two set off into the depths of the forest and up the mountain and there, suddenly....
This is a morality tale with a message. It is reminiscent of Franz Kafka's Before the Law, where a fearful and overly respectful man waits all of his life and never opens a particular door to enter its room, even though seeing this room is his life goal. He sits before the door for years until he dies. He never attains his goal, even though it is in front of him, for the door is open all of the time. He only needs to get up and walk in. But Maya and Matti overcome the fears of their society and venture forth, and learn why the animals left, but even more, they learn a lesson about people and life.