Despite Lilian Nattel's obvious talents as a writer, readers may find it difficult to become absorbed in her novel The River Midnight. The problem lies in the choice Nattel makes as to how she tells her story of Polish shtetl life and where she chooses to place her emphasis.
Most of the The River Midnight centers on a small village, Blaszka, "less than a dot on the map" of Russian-occupied Poland in the Roaring Nineties. No, not the decade that just passed but rather the last decade of the nineteenth century -- a decade that contained a lot of social activity, specifically (relative to this book) the first fights for workers' rights and the nascent acceptance by many of the philosophy of Marx and Lennon, the philosophy that would ultimately bring on the Russian revolution.
The book gets its title from a legend told by the peasants in Blaszka. A saint was once martyred in the river near the town at midnight, and his death resulted in the conversion and baptism of many of the locals. Despite this legend, the primary characters in The River Midnight are Jewish. They are Misha, a free spirit; Hanna-Leah, a woman who is responsible; and Faygela, a dreamer who wants to be a poet. It is Faygela's dream to become educated but the chances are nil. "...what Jewish child can go to a higher school?" laments Zisa-Sara. In American, however, education is available for all.
There is the potential, in these characters and in placing the novel in this time period, for a tale of great drama. Unfortunately the author chooses not to play up that drama. Instead, readers are kept, relentlessly kept, in the midst of the daily goings-on in this "less than a dot" village in Poland. Most of the events that would provide the drama are discussed fleetingly, almost off-handedly, as though the author cannot wait to have us back in the dirty huts of the peasants. One character says, "People write books and they talk about it for the next twenty years. But a person has to contend with pigs every day." This seems to encapsulate the author's reason for the choice she made in presenting her story. It is the daily drudgery that is to be emphasized, not the great events. This might be a good philosophy for discussions at a cocktail party if one wants to show one's "connection with the common man," but it makes a poor choice for the foundation of a novel that is to hold readers' interest over its more than 400 pages.
An example: at one point in the book, scenes take place in New York City, where the poor live on the lower East Side inside crowded tenements (that were rife with disease, as well) and struggle to make a few pennies a day to get by. One of the great tragedies of this time in New York City was the Miracle Cloaks Factory inside which many young girls working at sewing machines were trapped when a fire broke out. Many young girls jumped to their deaths to the streets below in order to escape the flames. It was, and is, one of the most terrible single events in New York City history. Yet readers get to experience little of this tragedy in The River Midnight; what they do get is:
"She squinted through the gritty, wavering air that juggled streetlamps. Fire wagons. Horses. Hoses. Water hissing in slow motion. The whole street seemed to be burning."
That first line is a good one. The rest is a maximum minimum description. But isn't this a tragedy of such dimensions that it deserves more than the few lines the author provides for it? Are we in that much of a hurry to return to the huts of the peasants to get on with detailed descriptions of their lives as they struggle through each day that we rush by tragedies of such import?
Many, many women died in that fire. Coffins were piled up in the street, yet the author sums up these deaths with these lines:
"The doors were locked so the boss could inspect the workers for pilfering before they left. I'm sorry, dear."
That's it. Is that really all the emotion and drama that is needed for this tragedy? Other scenes similarly skim over dramatic events in order to quickly return to the myriad details of daily life in Blaszka.
"No, Emma. Nobody got out."
Some chapters end with a promise of a future event. "In five years..." then such and such will happen. Or "In the coming years..." such and such will happen. Again, the sense that the author does not consider these events worth noting with more than a few lines (even though, quite frankly, they might be of more interest than another return to the peasants' huts) prevails. Nattel's desire is to return to the drudgery of life in Blaszka, to describe the struggle of their lives. That's fine, but readers need it to lead somewhere, need the drama that Ms. Nattel avoids. The book's third and final section, "Misha," is its strongest, and could stand as a novella unhindered by what precedes it in The River Midnight.