I had heard good things about this book from Bethany and Corinne, but I didn’t expect to fall in love with the characters and story like I did. Isn’t that always a pleasant surprise? Plus, I just realized today that this is on the 1001 Books list! I’m on a roll so far this year!
“Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blond Ukrainian divorcee. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six” (1). Thus begins A Short History of Tractors. As Nadia, the narrator, and her older sister, Vera, begin to investigate their father’s new romance, they realize that Valentina, the Ukrainian tramp, is probably seeking marriage in order to obtain a UK visa. But their father is hell bent on marrying his little Ukrainian strumpet–the one with the marvelous chest. The story is a battle between logical reality and very illogical romance as the daughters watch their father’s situation go from bad to worse.
While the premise sounds amusing, A Short History is full of deceptively heavy themes. Lewycka tells an endearing story of two daughters trying to take care of their father, but the daughters themselves don’t get along. Nadia begins to discover that while she is a “Peacetime Baby,” her sister suffered much in labor camps as a “War Baby” after her parents fled Soviet controlled Ukraine and before they found refuge in the UK. Nadia and Vera have polar opposite views of immigration, social reform, feminine rights, marriage and divorce, education, post-colonialism, really anything where one can take a definite side. Nadia seeks to discover her heritage while Vera does everything in her power to keep the family history in the past.
Even while this slim novel surprisingly contains so much meat, it is Lewycka’s writing style that endeared me to the book. While the writing is in many ways simple and fluid, Lewycka also plays a great deal with the language, especially as Nadia’s father and Valentina are not native speakers of English. Nadia herself has such a personable voice that beckons the reader to take her side, to like her and trust her despite her continued impatience with her father and her continued disdain for Valentina. In a sense the writing is very intimate, like listening to a best friend’s narrative about her childish father.
I don’t think I’m doing this book justice. In a few words this book is funny and heartbreaking, endearing and thought-provoking. I’d definitely recommend A Short History, and while it didn’t take too terribly long to read, I’ll be remembering the characters for a time. This book is my first for the 2009 Orbis Terranum Challenge (Ukraine–although Lewycka was actually born in a refugee camp in Kiel, Germany).
ORBIS TERRANUM CHALLENGE 2009
*The Inheritance of Loss – India
*Cry The Beloved Country – South Africa
*Doctor Zhivago – Russia
*Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian – Ukraine
*Suite Francaise – France
*Graceland – Nigeria
*The Horseman’s Graves – Canada
*Septembers of Shiraz – Iran
*Possession – UK