A Soldier's Story
“A book about young men transformed by war, written by a veteran whose dazzling literary gifts gripped my attention from the first page to the last.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Friedman’s sober and striking new memoir . . . [is] on a par with Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried -- its Israeli analog.” —The New York Times Book Review
It was just one small hilltop in a small, unnamed war in the late 1990s, but it would send out ripples that are still felt worldwide today. The hill, in Lebanon, was called the Pumpkin; flowers was the military code word for “casualties.” Award-winning writer Matti Friedman re-creates the harrowing experience of a band of young Israeli soldiers charged with holding this remote outpost, a task that would change them forever, wound the country in ways large and small, and foreshadow the unwinnable conflicts the United States would soon confront in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.
Pumpkinflowers is a reckoning by one of those young soldiers now grown into a remarkable writer. Part memoir, part reportage, part history, Friedman’s powerful narrative captures the birth of today’s chaotic Middle East and the rise of a twenty-first-century type of war in which there is never a clear victor and media images can be as important as the battle itself.
Raw and beautifully rendered, Pumpkinflowers will take its place among classic war narratives by George Orwell, Philip Caputo, and Tim O’Brien. It is an unflinching look at the way we conduct war today.
Praise For Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier's Story…
“This superb book is partly a history of the war, partly a personal memoir, and partly a work of political analysis. But mainly it is an effort to tell the story of the young men who fought to defend something “the size of a basketball court”—not all of whom survived. Pumpkinflowers is rich enough to allow different readers to draw their own political conclusions, if they choose to draw them at all. Above all, it is a book about young men transformed by war, written by a veteran whose dazzling literary gifts gripped my attention from the first page to the last.” —Bret Stephens, The Wall Street Journal
“Sober and striking…on par with Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” – its Israeli analog.” —The New York Times Book Review
“…phenomenal…extremely moving…” —Bari Weiss, The Wall Street Journal
“Matti Friedman’s powerful memoir of his IDF service in Lebanon in the late-’90s foreshadows the complexities of 21st-century warfare.” —The New York Jewish Week
“Pumpkinflowers is a beautifully written, gut-wrenching book. … a poetic account of an Israeli army veteran's time in southern Lebanon.” —Shelf Awareness
“Friedman, a journalist and author of “The Aleppo Codex,” writes with great feeling and insight…. The author’s account of military life transcends the particulars of this tale.” —Christian Science Monitor
“Powerful account of youthful Israelis maturing, fighting, and dying at a forgotten Lebanon outpost. In this limber, deceptively sparse take on the Middle East's tightening spiral of violence, Friedman combines military history and personal experience on and off the line in deft, observant prose. The narrative is reminiscent of novels by Denis Johnson and Robert Stone, linking combat's violent absurdity to the traumatized perspectives of individual participants. A haunting yet wry tale of young people at war, cursed by political forces beyond their control, that can stand alongside the best narrative nonfiction coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Remarkably educational and heartfelt: Friedman’s experiences provide a critical historical perspective on the changing climate of war in the Middle East, shifting from short official conflicts into longer unwinnable wars full of guerilla tactics and the deliberate creation of media narratives and images. His lyrical writing, attention to detail, and personal honesty draw the reader into empathy along with understanding. Friedman’s memoir deserves wide readership." —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“fast and engaging… A compelling war memoir containing elements of terror, observation, boredom, and grim (at times absurd) humor. This is an excellent read…” —Library Journal, starred review
“A compelling narrative, freighted with explosive geopolitical implications.” —Booklist, starred review
Algonquin Books, 9781616204587, 256pp.
Publication Date: May 3, 2016
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
The title of the book refers to Israeli army jargon that gave pretty names to harsh elements of the military world, names that “seem intended to bestow beauty on ugliness and allow soldiers distance from the things they might have to describe” (p. 24). Why do you think the author chose this as the title? How did it affect you as a reader both before you read the book and after?
Readiness with Dawn is the beginning of a soldier’s day, both a ritual, and as Friedman writes, a state of mind. What is Readiness with Dawn and why do you think the book opens with it? Does it play a larger role in the book as a whole?
The first part of the book is told through the eyes of Avi, a soldier who was killed in the helicopter crash. Why do you think the author chose Avi as the protagonist of this section? Avi’s fate is not revealed until the end of Part 1 when the actual crash occurs, a narrative technique that is employed for each of the soldiers that we meet throughout the book. Why do you think Friedman chose to write the book in that way? What is the effect of that technique?
How did this incident—one in which nothing actually happened militarily and which had fewer casualties than other incidents—generate so much attention? What impact did it have going forward?
The women of the Four Mothers movement, among them Bruria and Orna, took on the generals of the IDF and Israeli society as a whole. In what ways were they like their matriarchal namesakes from the Bible? How did the culture of the army define their struggle? How does the structure of the book impact your thinking of the Four Mothers?
What is the role of the kibbutz movement in this book? What is its relationship to the Four Mothers movement? What is the link between the decline of the kibbutz and the conflict in Lebanon, and how does this affect the soldiers?
The chapter that details an incident in which the author narrowly escapes a roadside bomb begins with the words, “The Pumpkin finally introduced itself to me on the night Natalie was going to get undressed” (p. 128), describing a popular Israeli television show. Why do you think this detail is included? How does the frequent mix of mundaneness and violence interplay for you as a reader?
Unlike other wars in Israel’s history, this period of the security zone in Lebanon is an unnamed war, one that barely registers in the collective Israeli memory. Why does it matter that this war remains unnamed? What does that mean for the soldiers who fought at the outposts in South Lebanon? What is the impact of being able to stand in safety at the site of a battle (p. 179), and does the author’s trip back to the hill in Lebanon carry any of the same weight?
Ilya, a soldier from Avi’s platoon, says that one of his most lasting memories is doing dishes (p. 29), and Friedman’s platoon leader tells an interviewer that he returned to his base after losing his entire platoon in the helicopter crash by taking a bus (p. 112). Do you think these are displays of the lack of ideology (p. 125) that the author describes among his fellow soldiers or something else? Why do you think the Lebanon conflict bred an attitude of “feigned indifference” (p. 180) among the soldiers?
Friedman writes that “the fulcrum of Israel’s recent history can be found in those months in the spring, summer, and early fall of that year” (p. 177). Why does he feel that short period was so influential? Do you agree with his statement?
On his trip back to Lebanon, the author writes, “When I went back to the Pumpkin
in the fall of 2002 I thought it was a conclusion . . . But I sensed then, and know now, that I was wrong . . . The outpost was the beginning. Its end was still the beginning . . . The present day might still be the beginning” (p. 222). What does he mean by this?
What effect did the author’s trip back to Lebanon have on the narrative of the book? Did it alter your reading in any way? If the book ended on page 190, before the return trip, would that have changed how you view the book or what you see as the focus of the book?
How has reading this book affected your view of Israel? Of the IDF? Has it changed your thoughts on Israel’s present day situation or on other ongoing conflicts in the Middle East?
Which sentences, paragraphs, moments, or events stayed with you after you finished reading Pumpkinflowers? Why did those instances or thoughts stand out for you?
Discussion questions prepared by The Jewish Book Council, www.jewishbookcouncil.org