Jewish Journal

Ellen Levy’s unlikely quest to find herself in the Amazon

by Steve Weinberg

Posted on Jul. 27, 2012 at 10:00 am

“Amazons: A Love Story” (University of Missouri Press: $24.95) is a highly unusual, poignant coming-of-age saga by a half-Jewish writer nearly off the scale in candor and braininess. Her name is E.J. (Ellen) Levy. My bet is that any lover of words who takes the time to read her prose will never forget that name.

Some writers exhibit breathtaking talent, but never find a mass readership. Levy has been publishing beautifully crafted short fiction and nonfiction in magazines and literary quarterlies for a couple of decades, but is far from a household name. This year, with the coming-of-age memoir just published and a short story collection scheduled for September, Levy will probably win converts. But because “Amazons” is being published by a nearly moribund university press, and the upcoming book, “Love, in Theory,” is being published by a presumably healthier yet still somewhat obscure press (University of Georgia), a lot of marketing combined with good fortune will need to coalesce for Levy to break out.

Religion does not play a major overt role in the “Amazons” saga, yet undergirds so much of what happened. Born in 1962, Levy says “I was the child of what was genteelly known in late twentieth-century America as a ‘mixed marriage”—the union of Protestant and Jew—and this shaped my sensibility, surely, if obscurely, informing, I suspect, the salvific impulse that for years fueled my desire to save the Amazon [in Brazil]. My parents had been raised in religious homes—among Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Methodists—but they relinquished their respective faiths before they met and married. My mother converted to Orthodox Judaism for the sake of my father’s mother, but they gave up on religious observance. Still, the brooding shadows of their gods remained. Although my parents sacrificed the confidence of those who believe that they are chosen or saved, we lived with an oppressive sense of divine judgment. Their youngest child, I was especially susceptible. From an early age, I was on the look out for vocations, wrongs to right. At eighteen, when I first read about the disappearing rain forest, I thought at last I’d found it—my calling.”

In college at Yale University, Levy wanted to arrange a study program in a remote part of Brazil, where she would make a noticeable contribution to ecology. That decision led to raised eyebrows at home. As Levy reveals, “Jews, I’ve recently learned, are not supposed to care about nature.” The emphasis on words, “on text over terrain,” she says, “was pragmatic as much as principled. Jews did not own the land, so they’d better not rely on it. The word—Torah—would always be theirs.”

Levy did not accept that dichotomy. “Landscape shapes us and thus our culture, as much as we shape it. I wonder how what we are doing to the natural world now will shape our nature, reshaping perhaps the civilizations we have built.”

As a 21-year-old traveling to Brazil to save the planet, Levy was formulating such deep thoughts. But she lacked a practical plan for conducting rain forest research thousands of miles from home, in a vast nation where Portuguese in the language, a language Levy did not speak well. With money from a Rotary Club fellowship, Levy could nearly reach her destination. But then what?

Much of “Amazons” is about Levy’s quest to actually conduct rain forest research. But most of the memoir is about overcoming her interior shortcomings before she could help mature adult scientists.

Much of the candor is focused on Levy’s sexuality, as she suffered from believing she owed sexual intercourse to men who agreed to squire her on a date, even a cheap date. Levy mentions several times that she later became a lover of women, not men. But the book ends before her first female-female love affair at age 25. The flings with men in Brazil lead to disappointment and a date rape. The descriptions are brutal—not so much forbidden four-letter words, but rather raw descriptions of emotional devastation.

Levy is especially brutal when beating up herself. Consider this passage, describing herself at one juncture in her Brazilian sojourn, as she thought about killing her character,  if not her actual breathing body. She was “the girl who’d checked into a too-expensive hotel, who was no good at repartee in any language, who had not mastered Portuguese, who was pale, overweight, too self-conscious to lie on a beach, the girl who desired nothing except to be less than she was, to lose.”

In a coming-of-age saga told from hindsight, often the memoirist can demonstrate she did not lose, not ultimately. Levy, who just this year accepted a professorship at Colorado State University teaching creative writing, is a winner as a thinker and a wordsmith.

Steve Weinberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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