Mary E. Carter’s new novel “All Good Tova Goodman” is for anyone heartened by stories of independence, singularity and tenacity. The novel’s lead character, Tova Goodman, possesses those qualities in spades. So do other characters, including a tree.
Tova is on a lifelong pursuit of the meaning of the word good. It’s her calling.
As with the main female characters in two previous Carter novels, Tova represents “ordinary people grappling with big philosophical, ethical or moral issues” as best as they can, the author noted.
The word good is built into Tova’s name. Twice. Obviously it’s part of her last name; and Tova is a female name that means good in Hebrew.
A young Tova questions the origin of the word good in her studies with a rabbi. She’s studying Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.
She asks if God (“he-she-or-it”) should have defined major concepts before describing how the word good is used.
Good question, the rabbi says.
The discussion leads Tova to ask – and ask, she will – about good versus evil in the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah. God wants to destroy the cities because of their wickedness.
Abraham asks God to spare the people. Just how many people have to be righteous (good) to make up for the bad people in order for God to save the whole population?
Carter said she chose that biblical story for Tova to explore because the author sees parallels between Abraham bargaining with God and Tova negotiating with the rabbi.
“Study of Torah is not to memorize chapter and verse, not to memorize ritual beliefs and then to recite back mere doctrine. Study of Torah is meant to engage our minds, hearts, souls,” Carter wrote in an email.
The adult Tova lives in Placitas, New Mexico, just above the rising shoreline of what is the New Pacific Ocean. The backdrop of the novel is a post-apocalyptic world in which nature has taken over the built environment of Washington, D.C.
Jerry Sterns, one of Tova’s friends, alliteratively describes what he saw in the nation’s capital: “All the fine white buildings were overgrown with poisonous tendrils and enormous twisted trees with treacherous thorns strangling their trunks …”
Tova, Jerry and their companion Emmanuel Epps evoke optimism. They are stout survivors, supporting each other into their twilight years.
“All Good” is the sequel to Carter’s 2017 prize-winning novel “I, Sarah Steinway.” Sarah had lived in a treehouse overlooking a bay in northern California facing its own rising floodwaters.
Near the conclusion of “All Good” is a memorable, tender episode, as seen by Tova, a centenarian approaching the World to Come. The episode is also about renewal, the renewal of the almost 100-year-old split oak tree whose limbs had generously given Sarah a home.
Now the trunk and branches swallowed the small structure. The tree has become “an arboreal goddess, holding firm, unyielding …” the novel explains. Soon the tree struggles “to regain all of its heartwood stamina … What else was there for that tree but patience, to heal and to attain revenge, to mediate its injuries?”
The tree had been “a good home for humans in bad times. Now the tree needed to be a tree.”
Sans debate of good versus bad.
Readers will find light moments peppering the text with multiple usages of the word good. Here are some of them:
“Good looking and a real good-looker”
“I repeat: These are not the good old days.”
“The Good War” (Tova’s Dad fought in World War II)
“Well, goody for her.”
“Tova retained her jaunty gait and good posture even into her 90s.”
“So, ‘All good,’ as we used to say and shrug.”
Mary E. Carter, the author, is a Placitas resident who has studied Torah for more than 25 years.
At the back of the novel is a list of books on related topics, a reader’s guide and questions for discussion.