Myth meets history in Blaszka, a fictional village in Poland and the site of this beautiful, multi-layered novel set in 1894. Listen. You can hear the excitement in the village square, the flimsy stalls piled high with wares, and in the centre Misha the midwife laughing. The wayward heart of Blaszka, she holds safe all the local secrets, including the stories of the four vilda hayas, "the wild creatures," as she and her girlfriends were known. Although the women have grown apart, unexpected love, a daughter imprisoned, and two orphan children sent home from America, entwine their lives again - all as Europe moves headlong towards chaos.
In this magnificent novel of magic and mystery, Lilian Nattel has resurrected a vanished world that explores the tensions between men and women, and celebrates the wordless bonds of friendship in a way that is simply unparalleled.
Canadian author Nattel's debut novel poignantly and humorously evokes shtetl life by interweaving stories of four Jewish women in Blaszka, a turn-of-the-century Polish village. As vilda hayas (wild children), they romp in the woods. As adults, they bind their community together through their shared joys, sorrows, schemes and scandals. Married to the butcher and running his shop with wily efficiency, childless Hanna-Leah likes to bathe and dream in the Polnocna (Midnight) River. Restless Faygela has several children, the eldest in jail for helping her American cousin spread revolutionary ideas. After Zisa-Sara dies in America, her orphaned children are returned to her native village to be raised by friends. Looming over all is earth-goddess Misha, a strong, independent midwife who divorces her husband and refuses to remarry or reveal the father of her child. Blaszka plays host to Russians, Poles, Jews, non-Jews, players, peddlers, drifters and demons. As villagers travel, the reader also glimpses the streets of Plotsk, Paris, Warsaw and immigrant New York. Retelling each scene from different perspectives in fluid prose dotted with aphorisms and Yiddishisms, Nattel celebrates a culture that values scholarship, charity and individual freedom, its high-mindedness balanced by a coarse appreciation of human weakness. Details of food preparation, sexual attitudes, religious ritual and family routine produce a richly textured portrait of a small town. While her modest magic realism (evidently owing a debt to Singer and Aleichem) never soars, it beautifully captures a lost way of life and its enduring sense of community.