A young Croatian girl dreams of America in this debut historical novel.
In this book, Raguz tells the story of Marta Tomic, a girl growing up in the Croatian city of Vukovar during the reign of Yugoslavian dictator Josip Tito in the 1970s. Her father loses his job due to his involvement in the Croatian Spring political movement years earlier, and her family is under constant scrutiny because of their Roman Catholic faith and refusal to join the Communist Party. But Marta finds solace in watching American movies and acting in school plays. When she’s chosen to participate in a student exchange program in New York City, she’s overjoyed. She’s even more excited when she meets her host family and finds that the parents have a handsome son, Ian. But even in America, life is not all sunshine and rainbows. The daughter in her host family becomes jealous of Marta’s acting talent, and the father is stern and sometimes downright abusive to his children. And more conflicts await Marta when she returns to Croatia, as a change in regimes threatens to spark a war between the Communists and the nationalists. Throughout the many changes in her country and her own life, she keeps up her love for and connection to the U.S.—and to one American man in particular—while struggling to cultivate her talent for the theater. The narrative moves along at a quick pace despite the book’s length. Marta makes a sympathetic protagonist, and when she and her loved ones are in danger, it’s easy to care about what happens to them. One weakness of the story, though, is that it spends too much time on exposition laying out the political climate of Croatia and how Marta’s family feels about it and not enough time building scenes that show the characters’ internal conflicts. The dialogue also tends to feature many sentences beginning with “as you know” and such on-the-nose statements as “What’s going to happen to me?” uttered by characters in immediate, mortal danger.
An earnest but uneven guide to an oft-overlooked period of Croatian history.