Friday, July 09, 2010

A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian

I'm taking a short break during our annual trek to the beautiful Colorado mountain town of Breckenridge to write about A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian, by Marina Lewycka, which I finished last week.

I have mixed feelings about this novel. It was much darker and more problematic than I expected--definitely bittersweet, but I'm not sure that I don't like it more for being a bit more problematic and less cloying than anticipated.

The story is narrated by Nadia, the younger of two sisters, daughters of Ukranian WWII refuges who immigrated to England after the war. The older of the sisters, Vera, was born during the war, and the younger was a post-war baby. Their mother has recently died and their father is in love with a "floozy" from Ukrania who is trying to stay in Britain so that she can provide a better education for her son than she believes he could get in Ukrania. The father is hell-bent on marrying the woman, Valentina, although she is at least 40 years younger than him and already married and is carrying on with at least several other men as well.

However, the current story serves as a means for Nadia to learn about her own parents' history, what their lives were really like in Ukrania and later Germany, where they lived in work camps, and their relationship to their first-born, Vera, who has a volatile relationship with her father. I haven't read much about life in the Soviet Union during WWII, and so from that perspective, this was a fascinating book about a segment of the immigrant population that I was pretty ignorant about.

It's a story about a multi-generational family and how it deals with displacement and cultural and national identity. It's a story about sibling rivaly and the differences between love and obligation, courage and survival, pride and shame. It's a story about collective memory--what sticks and becomes legend, and what gets swept under the rug and forgotten. I loved how Nadia could never really decide whether her engineer father was certifiably crazy or brilliant. It's a novel that provides no easy answers--though key plot points are resolved at the end, the family ties are still brittle, but strong.

Although I was expecting a much more lighthearted story, in the end I'm glad I read the novel. Incidently, the title derives from the work that the father is writing in the course of the story...that is, a short history of tractors in Ukranian.


  1. I've been curious about this one. I have to say that I thought it would be more lighthearted too. I will probably pick it up at some point but probably not too soon.

  2. It definitely has dark elements, there are two quite shocking incidents in there that stick in the memory, but nonetheless I felt that the ending was very life-affirming, which I wasn't expecting when I first started reading it. And Lewycka never dwells on the darker parts of the story for long before heading briskly towards a lighter, more humourous incident - it's been a while since I've read it, but the light outweighs the dark in my memory.

  3. I got engaged in Breckinridge! I love going skiing there. I hope you have a great vacation!

  4. I almost forgot to read the review after I read that you were in Breck! We used to go there every year--love that town! One year I decided that my kids did need to see some other parts of the country and we've never gotten back. Maybe next year!

  5. I too found Tractors darker than I had anticipated from the book's cover and blurb.
    It was more complex as well, containing a fine portrayal of family dynamics - not to mention the delusions of elderly males.
    It also made me feel lucky not to have lived in "interesting times" as the Chinese curse puts it.

  6. Lisa/Lindsey - glad to hear you're familiar with my favorite mountain town. The good news is that it's only about 2 hours from our house, so we can get up there frequently. It's one of my favorite ski areas of all time!

  7. A very insightful analysis! I also expected something more lighthearted and was a little taken aback at the grim history and angry family interactions. But what's there is a more worthwhile read that I had anticipated.