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Midnight River, by Lillian Nattel.

August 15, 2012

Midnight River, by Lillian Nattel.  Toronto : Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 1999.

A gentle, masterfully told novel about a Polish shtetl at the end of the nineteenth century with different women and men recounting their own perspectives of happenings and their own secrets.

When we were discussing historical fiction a couple of months ago, I was impressed by the comments of Lillian Nattel.  I found her blog and this book, and I am thrilled that I did.  Her historical fiction meets all my expectations and all those suggested by others.

Nattel is simply a fine writer.  Her text is smooth and appealing, and while her characters differed from people I know personally, they are utterly believable.  Her depiction of shtetl life is never nostalgic or sentimental because she shows us the all-too-frequent obstacles and pains the villager’s experienced.  As a historian, I was particularly impressed with how thoroughly she had researched her topic and how well she conveyed what she had learned.  Nattel didn’t just accumulate information and throw it at readers.  She seems to have immersed herself in her historical setting so deeply that details about it flow gracefully in and out of her story, never heavy or boring as historical data can be in novels.   Her glossary and bibliography are very helpful.

In addition, Nattel has a clear, unbiased view of shtetl life.  She is Jewish, herself, and seeking to understand more about her own lost past, but I never felt she was advocating or defending her own faith.  While much Jewish thought and ritual is unchanging, Nattel is careful to include practices and superstitions seldom used today.  While most villagers practice their religious tradition in an unquestioning manner,  an atheistic socialist teenager, returned to the village from New York City as an orphan,  attacks the others’ simple faith.  Nattel likes her characters, but shows us their faults and flaws, often as observed by their neighbors.  Her book is an excellent example of how emotional commitment to  a belief can enhance rather than detract from writing about it with fairness and balance.

The structure that Nattel has created is innovative, but easily accessible.  The chapters each focus on different individuals; first on four women and then on four men.  Their accounts overlap somewhat with others, but each offers his or her perspective along with experiences and secrets not known in the village as a whole.  The last section of the book focuses on Misha, a single pregnant woman who had appeared in the individual accounts and provides a center to the book’s diversity. In her  we can understand the fierce independence and the fear of trusting others that lie behind her determination not to marry.  As a midwife, she sees women at their most helpless, and does not want be like them.  And yet now that she pregnant she faces their fate.

Nattel does well dealing with gender issues.  The women on whom she focuses were restricted in the various ways typical of the time and place and of strict Jewish traditions.  They accept those restrictions, but Nattel shows us that she does not by describing the pain the limitations could cause.  Men are also treated fairly in Nattel’s novel. Wives complain about their husbands, but Nattel also reveal the specific problems the men suffer, again often from restrictive expectations of the tradition and culture.  Men can be tyrants and inadequate, but they are not the source of oppression and pain of the women. Russians and Polish officials can hurt the villagers, but the main sources of suffering are beyond the villagers’ understanding.  They can only wonder at why cholera attacks the village, why innocents are arrested, why no rain comes.  In their confusion, they sometimes blame themselves.

In its details, The River Midnight raises universal questions such as love, death, forgiveness, and the need to depend on others.  Although some of the questions are religious, Nattel does not give dogmatic answers.  When the atheistic orphan tells her little brother that “God is a cabbage,” he asks the rabbi about God.  The boy raises the ever-troubling question of why God allows bad things to happen to good people.  The rabbi answers with a simple story.  When God is asked why he doesn’t do something to relieve unmerited suffering, God replies. “I did. I created you.”  That story may not be original with Nattel, but I thank her for passing it on.  I hope I can remember it next time I am faced with tragedy.
SPECIAL NOTE FOR THOSE WHO,LIKE ME, STRUGGLE WITH RECURRING HEALTH PROBLEMS.  I found The Midnight River the perfect book to read while I was down and feeling cranky about most of my reading.  The pace and the lovely details held my attention and the pace soothed me.  The book was fascinating and suspenseful, but always calm.  I was intrigued and needing to know what happened next, but I was not whipped up by tiring excitement or violence.  Despite the hardships, pain, and grief, people managed and sometimes found flitting joy in life.  I appreciated the hopefulness.

I strongly recommend The Midnight River to everyone.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 16, 2012 8:45 am

    I am a big fan of Lilian’s – both as a person and a novelist – so I’m delighted you loved this. And what a fantastic review. Great job!

  2. August 17, 2012 11:00 am

    Beautiful review. I read this novel years ago, you have me wanting to read it again.

  3. August 17, 2012 6:23 pm

    Wow. This was one of the most detailed, persuasive reviews I’ve read. I”m definitely interested in this book now. It sounds very layered, which I like in a novel. Thanks for posting this!

  4. August 20, 2012 10:03 am

    A beautiful and indepth review. Glad this book soothed you in more ways than one

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