Poland, James A Michener, Random House, 1983, 556 pp
This is the 15th book I have read by this master of historical fiction. Though it has been on my shelves for many years I read it at this time because I had two other novels coming up written by Polish authors. I became interested in the country and its authors through a member of The Tinies reading group who is of Polish descent and has visited there several times. I wanted to learn more.
Michener begins: "In a small Polish farm community during the fall planting season of 1981, events occurred which electrified the world, sending reverberations of magnitude to capitals as diverse as Washington, Peking and especially Moscow." Who knew?
In 1981, Poland was still under Soviet Communist rule. The farmers of that small community sent a representative to meet with Communist officials proposing a farmers union in order to better their economic status. They were denied but the meeting was a turning point in Poland's fight to free themselves the Soviet Union.
In Chapter 2, the story jumps back to 1200 AD in the times of Genghis Khan and proceeds forward, following members of three families and their descendants to show how Poland reached that 20th century crisis. It is a tale of Nobles, Kings, Clergy, merchants, Jews, small land holders and peasants.
Once a vast land, areas of Poland have been carved away over time by the barbarian Tartars, Russia, the Austro Hungarian Empire, and Germany. The propensity of their Nobles to hang on to their lands, castles and riches plays out in relation to what amounted to slavery among the peasants, or serfs as they were then called. For centuries self-interested interactions between the Nobles and surrounding hostile nations led to wars and lack of a strong government for Poland.
Such a tempestuous journey from Medieval to modern times makes for absorbing reading. Wars and battles, victories and losses, bravery and love of country, artist and musicians (Chopin), a majestic landscape of rivers, mountains and forests. Always the backbreaking work of serfs to keep the population fed and served and to provide cannon fodder for the wars.
Because the novel was published in 1983, plenty has happened for Poland since. The current government has been free of the Soviet Union for several decades now but is right wing and conservative. I looked up some of the history of those decades. Though the country is more sound economically, a strong Catholic presence and the tone of the government impacts women's rights and the freedoms of writers.
It is good to have the long range picture, including the horrors of WWII, the Nazi concentration camps, the Soviet influence after that war, and the ongoing conflicts between Christians and Jews in Poland. In fact, it is difficult to understand the current news about any country so foreign to Americans. Michener's book filled in the gaps in my knowledge and was well worth spending a week to read.