In Lillian Nattel’s novel, The River Midnight, four Vilda Hayas (wild beasts) I mean four teenage girls grow up into women, each leading different kinds of lives, all revolving around the little fictional shtetl of Blaszka in Poland. Hannah-Leah gets married but cannot have children, Faygela gets married and has more children than she can handle, Zisa-Sara dies young and tragically after marrying, having two children and moving to New York, and Misha marries only briefly. Parts of the story’s plot are told over and over again from varying points of view – one must get used to this while reading the novel. At first one thinks, didn’t I read that already? But then something new is learned in the next telling.
Is the story realistic? I don’t know, I didn’t live in 19th century Poland, and neither did Lillian Nattel. But I like her characters, and I enjoyed learning more about each one. We never really get to know Zisa-Sara, but we learn more about her family through her revolution-seeking daughter Emma, her aunt Alta-Fruma and her Torah learning son Izzie. Pogroms, Shabbos food, Yom Kippur prayers, a woman who must give up her dream of higher education when her father dies, fertility and infertility, a pig owned by a Jew and an herb healer who gets pregnant out of wedlock are all part of the tale.
I found one of the questions in the reading group guide at the end of the book a bit strange: “What do the people of Blaszka get out of following their strict religion with its rules, songs, dances at prayers?” I say strange because their version of Judaism did not seem particular strict to me. It seemed like a woman-centered society – the rabbis don’t really seem to be dictatorial leaders, even if they are the knowledgeable ones. Without the women, everything would fall apart.
I will leave you with a taste of the writing style, a paragraph and a line from the prologue:
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.