Friday, July 09, 2010
A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian
Posted by JaneGS
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.