Friday, February 11, 2005

Book Review - Push Not The River, James Conroyd Martin

Push Not the River is based on the real diary of Polish Countess Anna Maria Berezowska. It follows her life during three of the more turbulent years of Polish history - 1791-1794. Left an orphan at age 17 she moves in with her aunt, uncle and cousin. While there she meets and falls in love with their handsome neighbour, Count Jan Stelnicki, but their relationship is scuttled by her cousin Zofia with devastating results. The family moves to Warsaw after her uncle's death and Anna Maria's marriage to Zofia's former suitor, Lord Antoni Grawlinski. Anna Maria never forgets Jan, who fights alongside those wanting to maintain Poland's independence, but their love must wait as each deals with the turbulence in their personal lives.

I had few quibbles with this book. The story is well-paced and compelling, the historical detail plentiful, yet not overwhelming and the characters engaging and true to the period. In addition the author accurately conveyed the spirit of the Polish national pride. It's something I'm fairly familiar with as my father is Polish.

The writing in places is a little awkward and could have benefitted from an editor's red pen. I really would have appreciated an Author's Note, telling me what was fictional and what wasn't as there is no public access to the diary upon which the story is based. The heroine's many adventures seem almost too much, yet I know that truth really can be stranger than fiction. I could find no information about any of the main characters.

Towards the end of the book, we see less and less from Jan's point of view, so the reader is left wondering what has happened to him right along with Anna Maria. Had his point of view not been employed so frequently earlier, I might not have noticed it so much.

Characterization is the strength of this book. Most notable was that of Anna Maria, who changes from a naive country girl to a sophisticated, politically aware woman, her aunt Countess Stella Gronska and the enigmatic Zofia, who served as Anna Maria's foil. Entries from the latter's real diary appeared in Anna Maria's and are neatly integrated into the novel. From one scene to the next the reader never knows how Zofia will react or what she'll do next.

This novel reminded me of a Polish Gone With the Wind, though with a reversal in roles as the heroine is closer to being Melanie while Zofia is much like Scarlett. Both novels cover turbulent periods of history, invading forces and women left to fend for themselves who rise to meet the challenge with strength and courage. I recommend it to all, especially those of Polish heritage.


An abbreviated version of this review first appeared in the May 2001 issue of The Historical Novels Review.

© Teresa Eckford, 2002

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