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A young Canadian writer’s brilliant first novel skillfully evokes what Irving Howe called the —World of Our Fathers— and the genius of such literary forerunners and likely influences as Isaac Bashevis Singer. Nattel’s complex story begins in the Polish village of Blaszka in the late 19th century, a decade or so following the Russian pogroms that cast lengthening shadows over the later lives of her characters—most importantly, four women who grew up together as “vilda hayas” (wild children) and took varying paths to womanhood and fulfillment. Childless Hanna-Lea, wife of Hershel the butcher, haunts the village with the sorrowful fact of her barrenness. Faygela surrenders her dream of being a teacher to become instead the mother of five and, eventually, to see her daughter arrested for “radical” political acts. Zia-Sara emigrates to America with her husband and, dying there, leaves her children adrift between Blaszka and their strange new country. And village midwife Misha (who has “more life in her than the whole of Russian Poland”), refusing to be bound by propriety or tradition, divorces her husband and later proudly, publicly gives birth on the very eve of Yom Kippur. Nattel weaves these stories together expertly in the richly detailed opening chapters (set variously in Blaszka, Warsaw, Paris, and New York City); then focuses just as intensely on the several men in her women’s lives (the luckless water-carrier Hayim and morose Rabbi Berekh, whose attraction to the forthright Misha will change him forever, are among the most vividly drawn); and finally concentrates on Misha’s volatile relationships with her closest friends (who submit to their traditional obligations in differing degrees), and on the wholesale changes wrought by the new century. A marvelous debut and a loving anatomy of the vanished world of the shtetls that merits comparison with the best work of Singer and Sholom Aleichem. (Book-of-the-Month Club/QPB alternate selection)

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-684-85303-5
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: Scribner
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 1998