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Donna Milewski is a relatively content 14-year-old—until her parents decide to adopt her cousin, six-year-old Elzbieta—the daughter of Donna's father's brother, who can no longer support his family back in Poland. Donna is ambivalent about the newcomer (called Betty in Massachusetts), but when Betty follows Donna on her first date and gets them both hit by an out-of-control truck, her happy existence abruptly ends. In the accident's aftermath, Donna gets blamed for being irresponsible, Betty—thought to have saved Donna—becomes a heroine, and the media goes crazy over the brave immigrant child who risked all to save her new "sister," even giving the Milewskis a new home. No one bothers to ask Donna what happened (and she can't speak for six weeks, her broken jaw wired shut), so it's never discovered that it was Donna who saved Betty—and no one believes her when she later tries to explain. Meanwhile, Donna's father immediately transfers all his affections to Betty—for reasons unexplained. Although both girls recover physically, once Donna graduates from high school she moves out of her parents' house and never speaks to her father again. It will take his death—and an all-girl polka band she forms on an old friend's suggestion—before she can finally come to terms with her father, Betty, the accident, and a romance that's been waiting right next door.
Until the ludicrous finale, when Betty's sister Aniela, a Donna look-alike from Poland, appears and offers a highly implausible rationale for Donna's father's inexcusable behavior, this is a sometimes rollicking, sometimes heartbreaking, effectively quirky read.
Ellen Feldman New York Newsday "Shea has written a wry, beautifully rendered novel that is touching but never sentimental, a generous-spirited story of the terrible fragility and ultimate redemption of family love.
She may just be the fiction find of the summer."
Winkie Papuga started the whole thing.
He just had to go and say it to me one more time, almost like he was underlining, then he let go of my hand, blew his nose, stepped off the porch, got into his car, rattled over the bridge, unlocked his apartment, took out his teeth, settled onto his daybed, clicked to the "Wheel of Fortune" and went on, I guess, with the rest of all the little actions that would make up the whole entire remainder of his life, not ever once knowing what he had done to mine.
No, he probably never ever gave it a second thought how, right after telling me how my father had been like a brother to him, then correcting how that wasn't exactly right because he couldn't really stand any of his brothers — no, he said firmly, Adam Milewski had been more like the kind of brother he wished his real brothers would have been, had they not been such SOBs (that expression meaning nothing against his own loving and dearly departed mother, of course, I had to be sure) — right after that, to change the subject, because if he went on he was going to start crying over how if my father truly had been his brother then he might have had at least one relative who would want to spend time with him in his old age, Winkie Papuga added, without even taking one breath to make it clear that now we were talking about something totally different:
"You ever play the accordion anymore?"
That day, people asked me (like I would have known) did we have them remove my father's gold teeth because what good were those or any other such valuables going to do him down there? Didn't we think they had colored his mustache a little too darkly? Who put that hammer and that sausage funnel in there with him? How much was the casket, and somebody took a picture of it, didn't they? Who was going to get all of his record albums? Did anybody get a chance to say at least a few words to him at the very end — and, if they did, what were they? So there was nothing too strange about Winkie, too, asking me something odd, or something that went way back, many, many years previous to this day, about a subject that had no connection to it at all. And because of that I didn't need a second to answer him, no, I no longer play the accordion, and I haven't picked up the thing since the eighth grade. I decided to skip reminding him of the details, how in the space of a couple of months, my world went flying off in a direction you couldn't find on any map, no matter how big a magnifying glass you held up to it — how out of nowhere got stuck with a little sister, got run over by a diaper truck, and got a real huge hate for the father I once had loved like nothing or no one else.
Instead of telling Winkie all that, I just said, "The accident. Remember?" To help him recall, I pointed to the right shoulder that, even many years after what happened, still makes cracking noises if I move it a certain way. I brought it to that position just then, pulling my hand up and back like I was going to hitchhike or put my thumb on the low C on the keyboard, and from under the shoulder pad of the blazer that was the only black piece of clothing I was able to come up with in my closet, and that made me look, I thought, like a hostess at a Steak & Brew, came the snap of the noise that always sounds painful to others but never actually hurts me one bit.
Winkie, who, I remember, brought to my house once I got home from the hospital a case of Moxie and a carton of blue-and-white-striped paper straws with little bendable elbows, winced and whispered, "Oh, yeah," and landed his eyes on the spot next to me, where two pitted aluminum screws kept the top hinge of the front storm door in place.
"Too bad," he said solemnly. "For all them years, your father used to say to me again and again, 'You know, Winkie, if she keeps on with it, she could...' " He stopped and looked at me right here, well aware that I knew the rest. Everybody in the world — at least everybody in the world around here — knew the rest of that sentence, because when I was a kid, and when my father was feeling in a certain mood, he would say to anybody who would listen to him go on and on, "If she keeps on with it, she could start her own all-girl polka band like the one I saw that time in Chicopee..."
Winkie smiled at me, and, so why not, we finished it together: "the one that makes a killing at weddings."
Then he laughed, and I found I somehow was able to as well, though not as hard as he was, and I couldn't help but take the guy around the shoulders and hug him fiercely like I was getting ready for someone to try to pull him away from me. I smelled camphor and Aqua Velva, but mostly what was coming into my head was how his was the height and size and heft of my father. This is how he had felt, way back when we actually did hug, and I would never feel that ever again. So I held on for maybe longer than Winkie was used to, if he was accustomed to any of this sort of thing at all, and he eventually pushed me away. But he did so slowly and kindly, and only so I could clearly hear him say:
"You know, he loved when you made the music."
I smiled as much as I could and said that I knew, because I did. For nearly eight years straight, from the first grade on, my favorite thing in the world was playing the accordion. Mostly, I must add, my favorite thing was playing it for my father. It was the main way we talked, though no words as you would recognize them ever were used.
I was not one of those kids who had to be screamed at about how much the lessons cost and how the thing is never used and what a waste it was to buy it and it would be better off on the front lawn with a "for sale" sign stuck to it because surely there had to be thousands of kids out there who would jump at the chance to have music lessons. Nobody had to promise me desserts, or a puppy if I practiced one hour a day for a year. Nobody had to make a chart to hang on the refrigerator and paste metallic stars on each of the days I did my scales and went over the next few new bars. I, too, loved when I made the music, and I practiced willingly and without reminder for one hour of each and every day of the week, just after supper was over and everything was put away, from 6:30 to 7:30, dragging an armless chair from the table to the center of the kitchen unfolding my metal music stand under the plastic glow-in-the-dark cross braided to the string of the ceiling light, then lugging the heavy black case from my bedroom closet, pulling on the beautiful, shining instrument, unsnapping the bellows, and playing over and over my father's many favorite polkas and obereks and mazureks and waltzes, one after another, stopping only to get another book or to flip the page from "You Are Teasing Me, My Darling," to "Wait for Me, Haniu," moving my fingers easily along the keys and the buttons with what Mrs. Dranka proudly pointed out to anyone who stopped by The Melody Academy during my weekly lesson was "a rare grace."
And for each of those hours of each of those days of each those nearly eight years of practicing, my father would sit at the head of the table, a silver rosary crawling through his left hand, a Camel glowing in his right one, smiling half at me and half past me, to (here I've always had to imagine because I never got the nerve to ask and he never told me) the place he came from, some world that must have had music like that playing everywhere, old-country versions of "Pretty Maryska" and "When It's Evening" and the Polish national anthem flowing out of every house and tree and lake and cloud the whole day long. My father was somewhere else for that one hour with me, and it wasn't within five thousand miles of that kitchen table. And if I've ever known any one thing for certain in my whole entire life, it was that right then, I was making him truly happy.
I heard Winkie say "Too bad you didn't keep on with it," and that brought me zooming back through the great space separating that kitchen and this front door, one narrow hallway apart, really, but thousands of miles from that pure time to this day so unbelievable and sad.
"Yeah," I answered, though I arrived back in the present without any opportunity to give a thought to whether or not I agreed with him. "Too bad."
Winkie went on, shaking his head and moving his hands together and apart as if he were playing something himself, but he got drowned out suddenly as she cracked that laugh and I could see, over the heads of the circle of admirers that Cioci Urszula and John the Barber were straining to edge their way into, my sister's hands flying up, fingers spaced and poised as graceful as a figure skater's, as she sighed loudly, "But that was my father for you!"
The people around her made the "aaaahh" sounds you hear when gifts are opened at a baby shower, like whatever story she just presented was the sweetest thing they'd ever seen. She might as well have just unwrapped the cuddliest, smallest, palest yellow terry cloth lamb, its eyes embroidered on so it held not even the remotest danger of a loose button that could be sucked down a windpipe. Then Millie Banach embraced my sister, and Peter Chmura patted her head, and Joe Miarecki told my sister he'd yet to hear a man go on about a daughter the way her father always had gone on about her.
Winkie Papuga must have seen me watching all that because he poked me a little in the arm, then harder, and harder again, until I finally turned. His eyes searched my face for a second or two, stopping with sadness, I saw, on the familiarity he found in the arc of my eyebrows and at the higher right side of my mouth. And he said to me again, "When you made the music, I never saw nobody so proud." Then he let go of my hand, blew his nose, and stepped off the porch.
At that point, I must admit, I did not know myself what Winkie had done right there. I had dishes to clear and keys and pocketbooks to locate, doggie bags to wrap, a toilet paper roll to refill, promises to make that, yes, I really would stop by someday, and nosy people to assure that, yes, I knew I eventually would find the right guy, and that, yes, I, too, had seen the sign announcing that the AmVets had started a pitch league for singles and was offering a free mixed drink to each person who registered. Getting everybody out of my house seemed to take about nine years, and in the end I was left alone with the silence and the empty folding chairs and the scattered TV tables and the icebox full of leftovers and the wilting red rose pulled for me from the casket blanket, and I went off to my own teeth and bed and television program, getting dragged into an ominous setup to a tragic true-life rescue story about boys who were playing with gasoline and a barbecue grill, and I did not even attempt to close my eyes until the kids — the actual kids who were the subject of the story — appeared as I was certain they would, in real life, at the end of the program, pointing their bandages into the camera as they warned others not to be as stupid as they had been.
If you want to know exactly, it would be two weeks and one day before Winkie Papuga's words to me would work their way down to the level where I would hear them in my head, at around four in the morning, coming in so clearly that I would think he somehow had gotten into the house and up the stairs and over to my room and next to my ear. But there was no one there when my eyes popped open, only the dark and the sound of his words running like the Conrail engine that right at the same time was barreling down the tracks laid six feet from my bedroom wall, bound for somewhere that you would not know about unless you were that engineer right now pulling on the horn, telling everybody to get out of your way.
You have a trip to make.
There is somewhere you have to go.
And you are driving.
I gave my notice three and a half hours later, my first and last day back at the factory.
"Donna, Donna, I'm so very sorry — so very sorry." Mr. Newbury began to chant this sadly the minute he saw me in his doorway. He came forward with his hand extended, and instead of my own I pushed into his palm the folded-up letter I had handwritten on a legal pad back when it still was dark:
I will be leaving my job. This is my two-week notice, but since I have three weeks and three and a half days of vacation coming, this will be my last day.
He looked at it for quite a while, as if reading two sentences would take that much time. So I added, to make sure he understood and, maybe, to make it all that more real for me, "I mean I won't be working here. Even today. And not ever again."
Then I took a step, backward, toward the door — a silly thing to do. What was I thinking — that I was such an important part of this place that Mr. Newbury might lunge at me and hold me captive until I changed my mind?
He only said "Donna — " and stopped at the one word, then scratched at his ear and squinted, " — I don't mean to...it's not my business...but, sometimes, at times like these, we make decisions..."
"I made it," I interrupted in a small voice, trying to be polite, trying to look at his vacation-tanned raisin of a face more than I was looking at his shiny brown shoes, all perfect as you would see in a store window, except for the fraying end of one lace. "Mr. Newbury. I've made the decision....Thank you, you've been very good to me all these years. Do I need to sign anything?"
He stared at me thoughtfully for a couple of seconds, and whatever he saw must have convinced him I truly wanted out. He left the room to bring back a form that called for too much information, and, sighing a little, he told me to write only my name where he'd made the letter X. He assured me he would have the rest of it typed out later on by somebody, so I needn't worry about having to come back. A copy, and my remaining paychecks, would be mailed to my home. Obviously, Mr. Newbury said, I felt I had to leave, that my mind was set, and he wouldn't keep me from whatever it was I was going to do. But, he said, I should know there always would be a place for me, as there had been for, what was it? (here he counted on his fingers) sixteen years already? — a span of time during which, it now occurred to me, if you had been born at the beginning, you now would be nearly old enough to drive and nearly of legal age to do all sorts of things across the entire country.
After making that generous offer, Mr. Newbury left a lengthy space in the conversation, and most likely here he was creating an opportunity for me to confide in him, to fill him in about the plans that were making me quit so abruptly — as if I could actually tell people at all right now, and as if when they heard, they wouldn't think I really had gone off the deep end. But, you know, I wouldn't blame them for thinking that way, even though to me it makes perfect sense that when you love somebody too much, even though to simply look at the two of you in the many recent years nobody would have guessed that, and you lose him forever in an instant right out of the clear blue sky without your getting a chance to set things straight with him, you go and decide to quit your job and tell everyone you're going to try something different, something you'd always wanted to do, something that might have made that one person happy if you had done it when he was around to see. You say to everyone that now you see how short and how unpredictable life is, and that now is the time for that change.
Usually in such cases, according to what I read in the paper, distraught people will say something like that and then, instead of opening the soft-serve ice cream stand they'd been talking about, or spending more time with their kids, the next thing they do is go off and kill themselves. In my case, I certainly was distraught, and I certainly was going to do something different. But I skipped right over the part where I was supposed to have gone off and hung myself in the sand pit behind the fire station. I had no choice. I could not be dead and still be the leader of an all-girl polka band.
Copyright © 1996 by Suzanne Strempek Shea
We hope that the following information will spark a lively, informative discussion among members of your reading group and will enrich your enjoyment of the novel. You can also enhance the experience by cooking the delicious recipe for Pierogi below, one of Shea's Polish favorites.
3 cups flour
2 beaten eggs
1 cup sour cream
1/2 tsp salt
Mix and let stand 20 minutes
Divide dough in half and roll thin. Cut circles with biscuit cutter. Place a small spoonful of filling a little to one side of each round of dough. Moisten edge with water, fold over and press edges together firmly. Be sure they are well sealed to prevent the filling from running out. Drop pierogi into salted boiling water. Cook gently for 3-5 minutes after they float to the top. Take out carefully with a perforated spoon. Serve pierogi with melted butter.
1 small head cabbage
1 small onion, chopped fine
Quarter cabbage and cook in boiling, salted water for 15 minutes. Drain, cool, and chop fine. Saute onion in butter, add chopped cabbage, salt and pepper to taste and continue to fry until the flavors blend. Cool. Stuff pierogi.
2. Has reading this book changed your view of the Polish-American community? If so, how?
3. The theme of Hoopi Shoopi Donna involves a father-daughter relationship that is severely strained and eventually undone through a series of mishaps. What happened to that relationship and is this unique to the Polish-American community, or is it something that could happen to anyone?
4. Even though Donna's cousin Betty has unwittingly become responsible for the split between Donna and her father, in what ways does Betty try to make amends to Donna and why has Donna made herself so emotionally unavailable to Betty?
5. As opposed to Betty, Donna makes terrible choices when it comes to men. What were Donna's ulterior motives in making these choices? Can you think of examples of other women who made similar mistakes and why?
6. Although the book is humorous throughout, it has its share of pain. Donna's pain seems so real, in fact, that it almost hurts to read about it. How did this talented, adorable girl, the apple of her father's eye, end up so unhappy and what do we learn about the powers of family, love, heritage and forgiveness?
7. At the end of the story, Donna seems to finally turn around her life and cast off her paralyzing grudges. What and who prompts her to do this and howrealistic is this?
8. Suzanne Strempek Shea clearly loves music, especially the Polka. In what ways is this reflected throughout the story and how is music used as a form of healing?
9. Hoopi Shoopi Donna reminds us that the power of memories, good and had, con sometimes be eclipsed by the simple acts of kindness that are part of daily life. What are some of these examples and what effect did they hove on the lives of Betty and Donna?
10. As a child, Shea took eight years of accordion lessons and remembers well going to her teacher's home (Mrs. Dranka's, actually) to sign up for lessons. Readers who have music lessons in their backgrounds might remember such a scene themselves, and might have found Donna's first visit to the Melody Academy familiar. What are some of the things that happened in Donna's life that night, and who are some of the people, from that night on, who figure greatly in her life?
Posted October 3, 2014
I purchased this book (which I read when it first came out) for a friend undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer because I wanted to give my friend something fun to read. Perfect!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 16, 2009
The Kirkus review makes a point of the improbability of the ending--the reason for the father's unrelenting anger at Donna--and I agree that in the context of modern, open American families this is a valid criticism.
This, however, is not a modern American family. As much as they try to assimilate, immigrant families always have one foot in the old country, with the secrets they tried to leave behind and the loved ones they had to leave behind. That the father's mysterious behavior is explained by the revelation of his secret, by a long long absent cousin who emerges as a loving soul-sister, is the magic that ties the story and the family together.
At the individual level this is certainly a story about a restless daughter finding her fulfillment in following her artistic passion. But the story also works in a sort of immigrant-gothic manner showing how we are made my the apparently by the often inexplicable acts of hate and love of the members of our families.
Posted January 3, 2000
Posted August 3, 2010
No text was provided for this review.