Time grows short at the end of century, like winter days when night falls too soon. In the dusk, angels and demons walk. Who knows who they are? Or which is which…Time is a trickster in Poland. In Warsaw they have electric lights. On the farms, peasants make their own candles. And in Blaszka? There, time juggles fire, throwing off sparks that reach far into the past and spin toward the future. But shh, we can’t talk, now. The story is about to start.*
Thus opens the curtain on Lilian Nattel’s The River Midnight, a grand tale about the fictional Jewish shtetl (little town) of Blaszka at the end of the nineteenth century. It’s a year of ritual and miracle, of friendship and betrayal, of yearning and fulfillment. Also the lifetime of a Jewish community surviving the struggles of existence on the spiked tail of Russian-occupied Poland.
At the heart of this story are four vilda hayas, the young wild girls with dreams of freedom, love, and the future. Hanna-Leah, Faygela, Zisa-Sara, and Misha run to the woods outside the village to dance, sing, collect wild mushrooms, and share secrets, untamable as teenagers everywhere. As they grow up they accept their places in the community, each with an outlook reflecting her position.
Hanna-Leah, a talented cook who always does what is right, marries the butcher but is unable to bear children. She is envious of her best friend, Faygela, the would-be intellectual who has six children as the wife of the baker. Always kind-hearted Zisa-Sara follows her husband to New York where they both die in a terrible factory fire. Their orphaned children, daughter Emma and a son, return to Blaszka to be raised by the sensible Alta-Fruma. Misha, the most outspoken and independent of the four vilda hayas who flaunts disdain at all useless rules, divorces after a brief marriage. She lives alone near the river, becoming the village midwife and the person to whom everyone turns when they desire a potion for special needs of inciting romance, building strength, or overcoming illness.
Blaszka is also populated by rabbis, water carriers, busybodies, prophets, gypsies, drunkards, mysterious strangers, the vulgar, and the refined. Some folk are noble, some are vulnerable, and some pious. Each contributes an essential, memorable element, no matter how small. You will recognize all of them.
It’s soon discovered that Misha is pregnant by a man she refuses to identify. Gossip moves along the lifeline of the village as certainly as the meandering current of the adjacent river. Villagers speculate who might be the father but are met by her silence. Misha’s painful labor provides a tender scene at the end of the story. I haven’t spoiled it by telling you that much because what ensues is a bit of a miracle in itself, given that the birth falls on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.
At times the book reads like a fairy tale, rich with Jewish nuance and superstition. At other places it resonates with the history of Jewish Europe. In some passages it blares like a bawdy song one might hear in a saloon where the drunkards mingle with those who might be prostitutes, angels, or conmen. Its scenes of magical realism will remind readers of the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer, I. L. Peretz, or Sholem Aleichem who also wrote of the European Jewish communities lost to World War II. Always, Nattel’s sensitivity to universal relevance is captured within the intimacy of a place so small that only a few hundred souls live there.
Nattel based her book on the stories her family told when they emigrated from Poland to Canada. She researched for years, reading dozens of relevant books, and included a glossary at the end to help the reader understand the Yiddish dispersed throughout. The glossary is essential for those unfamiliar with the mixing of two languages. I was also raised with Yiddish words and phrases sprinkled by my family as well as stories about shtetl life, and I still found it illuminating.
This is one of the very few books I’ve read six times (the other is To Kill a Mockingbird) and I’ll one day read it again. The quality of Nattel’s writing and the strength of her characters draw me back to the pages to follow the vilda hayas’ hilarious shenanigans and harrowing predicaments. At each reading, I’ve tried to determine who are the Director, the Traveler, and the Boss, and every time I’ve reached a different conclusion. The first time I read the book I had just completed writing the “final” draft of a novel that also tells the story of a fictional Polish shtetl and the strong women who live in it. (My story is in no way even wanly derivative of Nattel’s book, by plot or characters. My “final” draft was in no way final, either.)
The very last words of the book are once upon a time. How enchanting is that?
The River Midnight won the Martin and Beatrice Fisher Jewish Book Award in Fiction in 1999.
I look forward to learning about your favorite R fiction books.
*Just so you know, this passage is the very beginning and the very end of the prologue of the book.
Other books that were serious contenders for R:
Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham
The Reader by Bernard Schlink
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
The Red Pony John Steinbeck
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Room by Emma Donoghue
Roots by Alex Haley
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin
Run by Ann Patchett,
Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Scribner