War By Any Other Name

The impressive opening (in Pueblo, Colorado, in June of 1899) of Andrew Krivak’s first novel, The Sojourn, could hardly be more dramatic:  Lizzie, with her three-month-old baby, decides to take a walk outside for the first time since her delivery.  Her young nephew, Tobias, tags along with her.  Mother and child and nephew walk through the streets of the shantytown where Slavic immigrants reside.  Soon they are walking on the train bridge, “hypnotized by the water” below them.  Then, unexpectedly a train comes along, barreling directly towards the three of them.  They try to run, but Tobias’s foot is caught in the tracks.  Lizzie knows she can’t abandon her sister-in-law’s child, so she tosses her baby into the water below her hoping someone will rescue her son, as she tries to rescue Tobias.  And then the train mows down both Lizzie and Tobias.

All that in ten pages.  But then there is more.  Lizzie’s husband, Ondrej Vinich, somehow manages to survive the following year, raising his infant child in the house with his sister, Anna, who was pregnant at the time of the tragedy and went into labor out of shock. Her child is stillborn, further increasing the tension among the remaining adults.  Lizzie’s child is suckled by Anna, though her husband never speaks to his brother-on-law again.  At the end of that year, Ondrej takes his son—by then one year old—back to Pennsylvania where he and Lizzie had lived before they moved to Colorado.  That son, Josef Vinich, becomes the first-person narrator of Krivak’s electrifying narrative, after one more tragic incident that happens as quickly as the earlier deaths on the train bridge.

By all measurements, Ondrej is a decent human being, hard-working and up to the task of raising an infant child—in short, the kind of strong immigrant stock that built America. It’s his bad luck which irrevocably alters the dynamics of his situation.  In Pennsylvania, there’s another freak accident, this time involving a gun and an accidental death of an “American-born and Philadelphia-raised” upper crust weekend hunter.  And Ondrej, who knows that he’s just a “Slav, good for work and nothing more, an immigrant whose luck was bad since having come over,” decides that his only option is to take his son and return to Europe, back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  All that in another ten pages.

One of the themes of this richly compelling novel, then, is reverse migration.  What is it that happens when immigrants in the United States decide—or are provoked—to return to the country they fled, where the options for a good life were severely limited?  Kirvak’s answer is not always pretty, but fairly soon the narrative will shift from father to son.  Ondrej, the father, becomes a lowly shepherd, mostly living an isolated life in the mountains with his young child.  No doubt this would have been his fate if he had never immigrated to America. Defeated by all the recent tragedies in his life, there’s nothing left but to retreat.

Josef, the son, whose story dominates most of the narrative, doesn’t have any great success either.  When World War I breaks out, Josef and his best friend—more like a brother “not of blood but of labor and the land” —are quickly inducted to fight against the Italians.  The setting for their activities is the Northern Carpathians and Josef observes, “and so I killed as I had been instructed and believed that death and death alone would save me.”

“Never, when I set out from Pastvina—all of the world I knew—did I imagine that war would become such a lonely and peregrinated life.  A soldier lives by nature in the company of others like him, protecting, trusting, and much of the pull away from my father and my village was one born of a desire for common conviction among that company.  We believed in the right of the emperor in those days, and any man who took up arms believed it to the end, an end no one feared, for, if it came, it carried purpose and the promise of a kingdom greater even than the one for which we were willing to fight and die.”

Krivak writes of war with the skill of a mature novelist/observer.  Death, dysentery, starvation, chaos, amputation, prison.  All are here in elegant prose—plus touches of rare beauty and tenderness as Joseph comes full circle with is past, his father, his country—even the idea of his father’s reverse migration.  All of this in less than two hundred pages.  From one writer to another: “Welcome. You’ve already achieved a meaningful reputation.”  And to those of you reading this review, “This is the birth of a real writer.”

The Sojourn
By Andrew Krivak
Bellevue Literary Press, 191 pp., $14.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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