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A Gripping Tale of Escape From Ethiopian Persecution

August 15, 1987|CAROLYN MEYER

The Return by Sonia Levitin (Atheneum: $12.95; 212 pages)

"The Return" is a book to read twice--first to follow the gripping story of Desta, the courageous young heroine, the second time to savor Sonia Levitin's skillful writing.

The story begins in a remote mountain village in Ethiopia. Desta and her family are Falasha, black Africans who are also Jews with a heritage that can be traced back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Falasha is a derogatory term--it means stranger--and they are treated as outcasts, blamed by superstitious Ethiopians for the drought and famine that torment the country.

Despite the persecution, members of this black tribe of Israel stubbornly cling to their traditional ways. Desta, in her early teens, has been betrothed since childhood to Dan, a young man from another village. From her aunt, she learns to make pots. She also learns her proper role as a woman, a role that she resists. Desta prefers to make "useless" clay figures, she wants to learn to read and write and she shrinks from the idea of marriage.

An Impossible Dream

But Desta's older brother, Joas, plans to leave the village and make his way to Jerusalem and he wants Desta and their little sister to go with him. It seems an impossible dream: It would mean three weeks of walking, somehow getting across the border into Sudan, finding a refugee camp and then "waiting to be called." But then Dan's grandmother has a dream; soon after, there is a visit from some Jews from the United States. From that moment, for Joas, it is only a matter of timing.

Months pass and Desta remains unsure whether to leave or stay, until she visits a market with her aunt and sees for herself how the Falasha are scorned. She agrees to go with Joas. For one thing, it will get her out of the betrothal to Dan. But her relief is short-lived; Joas has planned to travel with Dan, Dan's father, the aged grandmother and others.

Preparations are made for the journey and a farewell meal is under way in the village. But at the last moment, plans are disrupted by the rumor that soldiers are on the way, probably to seize Joas for the army. Desta grabs what she can and flees with her brother and her frail little sister, Almaz.

"All my life, I had been a child," Desta says. "Always there had been someone to tell me what to do." But Desta can no longer be a child and as the perils and the privations of the flight increase, she is forced to act on her own. They run out of food and must find some. Their water supply exhausted, they decide to drink contaminated water: "We slipped away from death only to welcome disease." They are preyed on by bandits and subjected to the cruelty of those who recognize them as Jews and blame them for the famine.

Touching Moments

There are some touchingly funny moments when the girl from the village where time has stood still encounters 20th-Century artifacts. What does she know about zippers? About Polaroid cameras? Toilets?

The challenges Desta faces, the tests she must endure, are harsh indeed, but Levitin's writing stands in elegant contrast to this harshness. When Desta and her brother and sister have been on the road for more than a week, this is what she sees: "As we descended the vegetation changed, grew thick and tangled, with sharp ravines still dividing the land, then the ground rolling beneath us, studded with rocks, crested with shrubs behind which hid the shy creatures of the land. An occasional creek too teemed with life: Frogs and toads, lizards, green snakes and crocodiles whose teeth did gleam so in the moonlight! We no longer minded the dark."

"The Return" is based on an actual event. Between November 1984 and January 1985, about 8,000 refugees were rescued in a secret airlift called Operation Moses, from Sudan to Israel.

Some experts say teen-agers won't read about other countries. Let's hope that assessment is far from the mark. This is a fine book to be enjoyed by readers of any age.

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