The Turk and My Mother
Mary Helen Stefaniak
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Buy *The Turk and My Mother* online

The Turk and My Mother

Mary Helen Stefaniak
W.W. Norton
320 pages
June 2004
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Years ago, families shared a valued tradition of storytelling, tales they brought over from "the old country," where generations shared births, deaths, marriages, joyful events and tragedies. The new world in America was defined by the traditions of the old, both the joyful memories and tragic tales. These stories gave meaning and texture to their days, reminding the adults who told them and the children who listened of their rich heritage.

And who can say exactly how much was fable, how much truth? What happened to Uncle Marko when he went away to fight and why did it take him thirteen years to return from the war to his small Hungarian village? Was he longing to see his mother once more? What was behind the story of the Polish vampire? How can removing a birthmark save someone's life? And what about the blind musician? Would grown-up Marko ever imagine his own mother, Agnes, had romantic dreams of a handsome Turk (who maybe wasn't really a Turk) before sailing away to find her husband in America? And exactly how much did Aunt Madeline remember about the Turk who held her on his knee when she was five-years old?

Reawakening these memories, The Turk and My Mother is a rich tapestry of adventure, danger and romantic foolishness. What modern young person would ever imagine that their stubby little grandmother, in a shapeless dress and babushka, would have cherished romantic notions of a man other than her husband? The children are shocked, clamoring for more forbidden information, seeing their grandmother in a different light, as a young girl. And throughout the stories of this particular Milwaukee immigrant family, the Catholic Church weaves its influence and commandments, the priest a powerful figure. Sometimes alterations are called for, small changes to avoid God's judgment of all-too-human flaws. In such circumstances, God understands what a priest cannot.

Mary Helen Stefaniak writes of this country as the great melting pot, where our ancestors have come from all over the world, from the old countries of Russia, Italy, Ireland, from a Europe stressed by conflict and the rise to power of demagogues. They brought their transplanted hopes to their new country, where they bloomed again, creating a new cultural identity with roots nourished by ancestors. These are real people, once youthful and driven by dreams and expectation like any emerging generation. Their life experiences were defined by family long before this country created a history for itself.

The remarkable characters in this novel, from Grandmother Agnes and her mother-in-law, storyteller Staramajka, to the exiled Marko the shoemaker, bring another dimension to family history. These wonderful stories are the framework of cultural identity, the way we envision ourselves in the past and the tales we whisper to our children before bedtime. Spoken history is a cultural treasure, a precious commitment to the continuity of ancestral folklore. And if reality is obscured by myth, who is to say which is true?

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Luan Gaines, 2004

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