Page 26 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 48

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our mother is death. Nissenson portrays genocidal acts in the
form of both white and Indian atrocities; torture, murder, and
sadism all placed within the context of religion and the quest
for salvation. Fanny, the widow whom Tom eventually marries,
is also a loss of faith character. Initially, she refuses to marry
Tom because he is an infidel. However, after being compelled
to watch the Indians torture a friend to death, Fanny admits
that “I lost my faith Monday night.” She then asks Keene “Help
me live without Jesus, Tom .”
Mythologically, Nissenson’s title is richly suggestive. For ex­
ample, the tree of life grew in the Garden of Eden, from which
Adam and Eve were expelled. The tree of life may also be
viewed as an
axis mundi,
a world tree, which connects earth and
heaven, and which often functioned totemically among Indians.
The cross of Jesus is another form of a world tree. In Judaism,
of course, the Torah itself is referred to as a tree of life
Nissenson, however, reverses the assumption of re­
vealed religion that this tree is of divine origin. In a stunning
woodcut at the novel’s end, he portrays an apple tree growing
out of John Chapman’s head. For Nissenson, as noted earlier,
holiness comes from within. The novel’s epigraph confirms this
observation. Nissenson cites William Blake’s “The Human Ab­
stract.” “The Gods of the earth and sea/ Sought through nature
to find this Tree;/ But their search was all in vain:/ There grows
one in the Human brain.” Nissenson is the only Jewish Amer­
ican author who deals competently with both the Jewish met­
aphor and the Protestant metaphor on the frontier.
Nissenson views Israel as being torn between holiness and
power as the means of achieving redemption. His literary por­
trayals reveal that the country seems unable either to reconcile
the two or unequivocally to choose one over the other. Israel’s
quandary is well expressed by Nat, a history teacher, who ob­
serves, “Once we had denied God and decided to acquire power
to redeem ourselves, we were destined to become like everyone
else. Murderers . . .
Nissenson is concerned not with any par­
16. Nissenson,
Notes From The Frontier
(New York: The Dial Press, 1968), p.