SOUMCHI, the first novel for children by the popular Israeli author, Amos Oz, is rich with colorful characters, an exotic setting, a little history, and culture. The plot consists of a series of emotional conflicts between the protagonist, Soumchi, and his unsympathic parents and taunting classmates, and conflicts of his own conscience. While the story is worth reading for its humor and its glimpses of another culture, it may be too sophisticated for 9-year-olds, and, in some places, too didactic for 12-year-olds.
The story is set in Jerusalem before Israel becomes an independent state. Soumchi is a gently and romantic boy who dreams of escaping to the Himalayan Mountains with a pigtailed girl named Esthie. In the course of one day, he receives a bicycle from his eccentric Uncle Zemach, which a friend persuades him to trade for an electric train set, which he trades for another friend's dog, which runs away. By evening, Soumchi is left with nothing, and after a severe scolding from his father he too runs away. He wanders through the streets of Jerusalem and eventually winds up at the home of Esthie, where he spends an 11-year-old's idea of an evening of bliss.
Initially Soumchi's bike represents freedom -- to ride wherever he likes, as envious friends look on, and to imagine traveling to Asia and Africa, escaping his parents. But the story is really about changing and exchanging. One thing is given up for another as a person grows older. In Soumchi's case, it's a bike for a train for a dog for love. There is nothing wrong with this moral, but when Oz states it directly in the prologue and again at the story's end, he doesn't give the reader a chance to figure it out for himself.
The book has many lovely, humorous touches derived from Jewish culture and from its setting in an ancient land. For example: The stern and pompous schoolteacher who maintains discipline by shouting: "Not a dog shall bark. Let all flesh be quiet." Or the boys' secret society with Biblical passwords: "On the stairs you'll have to tell Bar-Kochba the password, 'Lily of the Valley,' and wait for him to answer 'Rose of Sharon,' then you'll say 'Rivers of Egypt,' and he'll let you past." And lyrical, sensual descriptions of everyday life, reminscent of passages from his acclaimed novel Touch the Wind, Touch the Water : "And among all the sounds of evening came the smells of evening; the smell of sauerkraut and tar and cooking oil, of souring rubbish in rubbish bins, and the smell of warm, wet washing hung out to catch the evening breeze. Becaue it was evening, in Jerusalem."
In this English version there is some mild cursing. One chapter is titled "To Hell With Everything" and when provoked, Soumchi calls his friends "bastards." Some scenes are written so passionately they might make young readers self-consious. For example, when Soumchi spends the night at Esthie's house, he thinks: "Who ever, before, saw a girl's room, late, towards bedtime, when the only light burns beside her bed." And, "I could scarely take my eyes off the arms of the . . . chair on which she's laid the beloved white jumper" that she wore to school each day.
It's hard to resist a spirited kid like Soumchi, who drifts in and out of fantasies, never passes up a chance to get into mischief, yet who is so philosophical he stops to analyze every harmless thing he does. Amos Oz shows genuine understanding for his character, who's just trying to have fun in a rule-ridden adult world. But he can become as great a pedagogue as an relative or teacher, sometimes plaguing Soumchi with his overbearing presence.