Pumpkinflowers: An Israeli Soldier's Story

Hardcover | May 3, 2016

byMatti Friedman

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Shortlisted for the 2016 Hilary Weston Writer's Trust Non-Fiction Prize

Shortlisted for the 2017 RBC Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction

Longlisted for the 2017 BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction

A New York Times Notable Book of 2016

A Globe and Mail Pick for Best Canadian Non-Fiction of 2016


From an award-winning Canadian-Israeli writer comes the true story of a band of young soldiers, the author among them, charged with holding one remote outpost in Lebanon, a task that changed them forever and foreshadowed today's unwinnable conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
It was small hilltop in a small, unnamed war in the late 1990s, but it would send out ripples that continue to emanate worldwide today. The hill was called the Pumpkin; flowers was the military code word for "casualties." Friedman's visceral narrative recreates harrowing wartime experiences in a work that is part frontlines memoir, part
journalistic reporting, part military history. The years in question were pivotal ones, and not just for Israel. They saw the perfection of a type of warfare that would eventually be exported to Afghanistan and Iraq. The new twenty-first century war is one in which there is never any clear victor, and not enough lives are lost to rally the public against it. Eventually Israel would come to realize that theirs was a losing proposition and pull out. But, of course, by then these soldiers--those who had survived--and the country had been wounded in ways large and small. Raw, powerful, beautifully rendered, the book will take its place among classic war stories such as those by George Orwell, Philip Caputo, and Vasily Grossman. Pumpkinflowers is an unflinching look, like the works of Jon Krakauer and Sebastian Junger, at the way we conduct war today.

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From the Publisher

Shortlisted for the 2016 Hilary Weston Writer's Trust Non-Fiction PrizeShortlisted for the 2017 RBC Taylor Prize for Literary Non-FictionLonglisted for the 2017 BC National Award for Canadian Non-FictionA New York Times Notable Book of 2016A Globe and Mail Pick for Best Canadian Non-Fiction of 2016From an award-winning Canadian-Israeli...

Matti Friedman's first book, The Aleppo Codex, won the Sami Rohr Prize, the American Library Association's Sophie Brody Medal, and the Canadian Jewish Book Award. It was selected as one of Booklist's top ten religion and spirituality titles in 2013 and received second place for the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 nonfiction rel...

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Format:HardcoverDimensions:256 pages, 8.53 × 5.84 × 0.9 inPublished:May 3, 2016Publisher:McClelland & StewartLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0771036906

ISBN - 13:9780771036903

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Nights on the hill were unusually long. They were inhabited by shadows flitting among boulders, by bushes that assumed human form, by viscous mists that crept in and thickened until all the sentries were blind. Sometimes you took over one of the guard posts, checked your watch an hour later, and found that five minutes had passed.      The enemy specialized in the roadside bomb artfully concealed, in the short barrage, in the rocket threaded through the slit of a guard post. We specialized in waiting. An honest history of this time would consist of several thousand pages of daydreams and disjointed thoughts born of exhaustion and boredom, disrupted only every hundred pages or so by a quick tragedy, and then more waiting.      At night four sentries waited in four guard posts that were never empty. Four crewmen waited in a tank, searching the approaches to the fort. Ambush teams conversed in whispers and passed cookies around in the undergrowth outside, waiting for guerrillas. A pair of soldiers drank coffee from plastic cups in a room of radio sets, waiting for transmissions to come through.      Before the earliest hint of dawn each day someone went around rousing all of those who weren’t awake already. Groggy creatures dropped from triple-decker bunks, struggled into their gear, and snapped helmet straps under chins. Now everyone was supposed to be ready. Lebanon was dark at first, but soon the sky began to pale through the camouflage net. Sometimes first light would reveal that the river valley had filled with clouds, and then the Pumpkin felt like an island fortress in a sea of mist — like the only place in the world, or like a place not of this world at all. There was a mood of purposefulness at that hour, an intensity of connection among us, a kind of inaudible hum that I now understand was the possibility of death; it was exciting, and part of my brain misses it though other parts know better.      This ritual, the opening act of every day, might have been called Morning Alert or some other forgettable military term, with any unnecessary syllable excised. It might have been shortened, as so much of our language was, to an acronym. But for some reason it was never called anything but Readiness with Dawn. The phrase is as strange in the original Hebrew as in the English. This was, in our grim surroundings, a reminder that things need not be merely utilitarian. It was an example of the poetry that you can find even in an army, if you’re looking.     The hour of Readiness with Dawn was intended as an antidote to the inevitable relaxing of our senses, a way of whetting the garrison’s dulled attention as the day began. It was said this was the guerrillas’ preferred time to storm the outpost, but they didn’t do that when I was there. I remember standing in the trench as the curtain rose on our surroundings, trying to remember that out there, invisible, was the enemy, but finding my thoughts wandering instead to the landscape materializing at that moment beyond the coils of wire: cliffs and grassy slopes, villages balanced on the sides of mountains, a river flowing beneath us toward the Mediterranean. Things were so quiet that I believe I could hear the hill talking to me. I’m not sure I could understand then what it was saying. But now I believe it was “What are you doing here?” And also “Why don’t you go home?”      That hill is still speaking to me years later. Its voice, to my surprise, has not diminished with the passage of time but has grown louder and more distinct.       This book is about the lives of young people who finished high school and then found themselves in a war -- in a forgotten little corner of a forgotten little war, but one that has nonetheless reverberated in our lives and in the life of our country and the world since it ended one night in the first spring of the new century. Anyone looking for the origins of the Middle East of today would do well to look closely at these events.      Part 1 is about a series of incidents beginning in 1994 at the Israeli army outpost we called the Pumpkin, seen through the eyes of a soldier, Avi, who was there before me. Part 2 introduces two civilians, mothers, who helped bring about the unraveling of the military’s strategy. Part 3 describes my own time on the hill, and the experiences of several of my friends in the outpost’s last days. The final part recounts my return to Lebanon after these events had ended, in an attempt to understand them better.      Readiness with Dawn ended up being a time for contemplation. Look around: Where are you, and why? Who else is here? Are you ready? Ready for what? So important was this ritual at such an important time in my life that this mode of consciousness became an instinct, the way an infant knows to hold its breath underwater. I still slip into it often. I’m there now.

Editorial Reviews

"Pumpkinflowers is a stunning achievement . . . Evocative, emotionally wrenching and yet cleareyed and dispassionate, Matti Friedman's haunting war memoir reminds one of Michael Herr's unforgettable Vietnam memoir, Dispatches. It too is destined to become a classic text on the absurdities of war." Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prizewinning biographer and New York Times bestselling author of The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames"Inspiring, heartbreaking, illuminating. Matti Friedman's brilliant account of a forgotten war seen through the lens of a simple soldier is at once a coming of age story and an essential chronicle about how the 21st century was born." Yossi Klein Halevi, author of Like Dreamers