If I Told You Once

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Overview

In her utterly original novel about mothers, daughters, and love, Judy Budnitz gives the traditional folktale an electrifying twist as she follows four generations of women from an Eastern European village to the tenements of an American city. Elena, born into a family ruled by a formidable mother, embarks on an epic journey to the New World, met along the way by evil, magic, and good fortune. The daughter, grand-daughter, and great-granddaughter who follow each share her special powers of observation and, often,...

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If I Told You Once

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Overview

In her utterly original novel about mothers, daughters, and love, Judy Budnitz gives the traditional folktale an electrifying twist as she follows four generations of women from an Eastern European village to the tenements of an American city. Elena, born into a family ruled by a formidable mother, embarks on an epic journey to the New World, met along the way by evil, magic, and good fortune. The daughter, grand-daughter, and great-granddaughter who follow each share her special powers of observation and, often, destruction. The result is a family saga unlike any other: a hilarious, heartbreaking story of family ties that bind.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Wonderfully wrought, with language as simple and straightforward as a fable, alive with a stunning metaphorical quality."—New York Newsday

"Nothing less than a tour de force." -The Forward

"Mesmerizing...This is a definite read for anyone bored by traditional tales." -Seventeen

"A bold first novel....A powerful telling of the immigrant experience."-The Los Angeles Times

"Splendid...If there is any complaint to be made, it is that the novel ends too soon and the reader is forced to close the covers and drift back into reality." -San Diego Union-Tribune

San Francisco Chronicle
Startlingly imaginative...Rich, vivid, strange...immensly satisfying.
New York Times Book Review
No ordinary coming-to-America story. The familiar journey from the Old World to New becomes magical in Budnitz's hands.... You're left with the delicious thrill of having been duped or have you? by a master of embellishment.
Washington Post Book World
Poetic and original...never ceases to surprise with its striking inventions.
Village Voice Literary Supplement
An intelligent, tactful, and well-paced novel. Every page is a pleasure to read, and like a matrushka doll, reveals smaller and more intricate layers of beauty the more one takes it apart.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This disquieting debut novel from the author of the praised short story collection Flying Leap singes itself artfully into the imagination with its hard-edged, folktale-influenced exploration of the fate of four generations of women in Eastern Europe and America. During WWI, young Ilana vows to escape her village, surrounded by bandits and timber wolves, and the life (continual pregnancies, hard physical labor) she is certain to inherit. Braving a cold, surreal world where wolves walk on their hind legs and severed feet turn up by the side of the road, she finds shelter with the witchlike healer Baba before meeting Shmuel, a musician who tells her about America. Together, Shmuel and Ilana flee their unnamed, devastated country for a new life in New York City. While Shmuel works as a musician and actor, Ilana cares for their twin boys and daughter, Sashie. Like her mother, Ilana favors the boys and neglects Sashie, reinforcing a pattern of fierce love and self-destruction that will be adopted by Sashie; Sashie's daughter, Mara; and Sashie's son's daughter, Nomie: "They are treading in circles in their in-looking lives, circles within circles, getting smaller and smaller until soon they will be spinning in place." As these women mourn the fates of the men they've glorified (Ilana's twin sons are killed in WWII, Sashie's husband is unfaithful, Mara's brother falls in love with the wrong woman), each telling her own story in short, alternating sections, the line between fantasy and reality blurs. Finally Ilana, through Nomie, resolves to break the cycle of madness. Budnitz's hypnotic prose, as tight as a coiled spring, dream imagery (both poetic and fierce) and instinct for the grotesque cast a weird light on familiar subject matter, and owe as much to Isaac Bashevis Singer's early demon-haunted fables as to contemporary multigenerational sagas. Although eventually the emotionally dark atmosphere may enervate the reader, the novel has a haunting power. Agent, Leigh Feldman at Darhansoff and Verrill. Author tour.
KLIATT
This impressive novel suggests its author to be a storyteller in the same league as her male antecedents, Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Singer. In a distinctly female alternative to their stories of life in the old world transported to and modified by life in America, Budnitz presents us with four generations of women, the first a daughter of the shtetl, the youngest a quirky American teen. Elements of traditional European folk tales are woven throughout, from the wolves of the eldest to the hooded garment of her descendent. Budnitz allows each girl/woman to tell her own story, observe the "otherness" of the generations before and after hers, and hand off the tale to the next in succession. Ilana's story begins with her own birth as the eldest of many progeny of a woodsman-hunter. Her younger brother Ari is her soulmate but displays fatal flaws that recur in a variety of guises with each new generation of men in this saga. Ilana's marriage—which is never formalized—brings her to America, between world wars, and provides her with identical twin boys as well as a daughter. That daughter, Sashie, straddles two cultures, fitting into neither and content with nothing her mother can offer. Her own children are the bitter Mara and the ne'er-do-well Jonathan; it is Jonathan's putative daughter, Nomie, who rounds out the generations, left to be raised by the childless Mara, still at home with her mother Sashie, who eagerly consigns Ilana to an institution. Anya, whom Ilana met under dreadful circumstances in the forests and pogroms of their youth, reappears in the modern world, a counterpoint of magic and omniscience against the deracination of Ilana's family. Teenaged girls of anybackground will find Budnitz's story wholly engaging. Its themes and motifs offer literature teachers much as well. Highly recommended for all collections. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1999, St. Martin's/Picador, 296p, 21cm, 99-22249, $13.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Francisca Goldsmith; Teen Svcs., Berkeley P.L., Berkeley, CA, March 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 2)
Library Journal
This imaginative debut novel tells the story of four generations of women. Ilana, the matriarch, comes from a cold, desolate Eastern European village where "the smell of a goat was a welcome thing." Her recollections of her childhood, family, and escape from a domineering mother are filled with fairy tale episodes. Ilana flees her country prior to World War I by posing as her lover's sister. In America, she begins raising her own family, but it soon becomes obvious that the same forces paranormal in nature that haunted her in the old country remain with her and will continue to haunt her family for generations. She tries in vain to convey this to her daughter and granddaughter, but it is only her great-granddaughter who finally understands. A dark, wickedly funny, and poignant first novel; Budnitz, author of the short story collection Flying Leap, is an original and instantly appealing voice.
Nora Berkley Krug
Judy Budnitz's first novel is no ordinary coming-to-America story. The familiar journey from Old World to New becomes magical in her hands. ''If I Told You Once'' is a kind of fairy tale about Ilana, a daring European village girl...Ilana is a mesmerizing narrator, so much so that even her most farcical tales can seem like the truth. In the novel's second half, however, as her daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter tell their own life stories, even the basic facts of Ilana's tale are called into question. You're left with the delicious thrill of having been duped -- or have you? -- by a master of embellishment.
The New York Times Book Review
The Washington Times
Part dark fairy tale, part weird family history it is altogether strange, inventive and ethereal.
Kirkus Reviews
An original retelling of one of fiction's oldest stories: what it's like to be a mother and/or a daughter in an ever-changing world. Born in an unnamed pogrom in what is probably Eastern Europe, 16-year-old Elena leaves her beloved mother and seven siblings to embark on a new life in America. As Budnitz's debut novel opens, Elena is telling her life story to a young woman who turns out to be her granddaughter—and what a story she tells. Full of superstition, magic spells, and folk legend (this is the land of The Evil Eye, after all), Elena's take on life is both familiar (anyone with a foreign-born grandparent will nod her head in recognition) and extraordinary. Simple of language, she is nonetheless complex in her understanding: "They loved each other very much, my parents," she writes. "But love was different then. People didn't talk about it, didn't even think of the word, but it was there in every mouthful of food they shared. It was a simple thing, certain, it needed no discussion. Certain as blowing out a candle. Do you need to discuss whether the room will be dark?" Her daughter, Sashie (soon to be Americanized to Shirley), then weighs in with her story, which includes no small measure of combined love and hate for her foreign-born mother, who engineers Sashie's marriage through Old World magic—and lives to regret it. When Mara, Elena's granddaughter, gives birth—to a son!—the three generations of strong, feisty women are forced to face their connection and to resolve age-old conflicts. Budnitz (Flying Leap, 1998) is at her best when she has Elena speak; for all their feistiness, Sashie and Mara never quite emerge from under the shadow of theiramazing matriarch. Still, Budnitz's debut is a kind of Jewish Rashomon, delivered with humor and heart. You shouldn't have to be told twice to read it.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312267513
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 11/1/2000
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,069,543
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Meet the Author

Judy Budnitz's stories have appeared in Story, The Paris Review, Glimmer Train, and 25 And Under. She lives in Manhattan.

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Read an Excerpt


Chapter One


llana


My family had lived in the same village for as long as anyone could remember. It was a place that lay buried in snow for nine months out of the year followed by three months of mud. It was the most desolate spot on earth and my family did not even realize it, because for generations they never ventured more than forty kilometers from the place. They were stubborn people.

    It was a place where someone had forgotten to add the color: low gray clouds, crooked houses of weather-beaten wood, coils of smoke rising up from cookstoves and rubbish heaps. All the wives of the village cut from the same dull cloth to make clothes for their families. We ate gray bread. The men made a fermented liquor so colorless it was invisible, nothing but a raging headache stoppered in a jar.

    People were simpler then. They kept their desires within reach. They had few possessions: a goat, a half-dozen chickens, a brass teapot, a cat so ugly it could kill mice merely by looking at them.

    That was enough. After days cutting wood in the black forest with ice clogging their nostrils, the smell of a goat was a welcome thing.

    In a place like that, the color of an egg yolk was something of a miracle.

    My people were a clutching, clinging people. They had to be. What little they had, someone was always trying to snatch away.

    I was born in violent times.

    I am told I was a breach birth. My mother was in labor for more than thirty hours. I was her first child. Allthrough her labor a winter storm ripped shingles from the roof. My father wanted to go for the midwife, but the violence of the storm kept him in. He could hear the evil spirits in the wind waiting to trick him, lead him in endless circles in the snow. People had been known to freeze to death just meters from their homes after getting lost on their way to the outhouse. My father paced in an agony of frustration.

    In those times childbirth was the realm of midwives and women-friends. Men were forbidden to witness it, they were bad luck; they were kept out of the birthing room, often out of the house altogether. My mother writhed and moaned on the bed while my father stumped from window to window, caged and frantic. The house had only one room. He crouched in corners, tried to make himself invisible.

    As the storm grew worse, so did my mother's pains. My father put his fingers in his ears but could not bear it any longer. He went to the bedside and found my mother thrashing and screeching like one possessed, her long hair pasted to her face in sweaty scribbles. He knelt and rolled his sleeves, he put his blunt hands tentatively on her belly; he nudged and prodded, thinking he could shift the little body into position the way he did with unborn lambs. He tried to look only at the tight belly, not at my mother's hectic face, her fingers tearing at his shirt, the pulpy strangeness between her legs. He pushed. Something burst with a wet pop. The bed was suddenly soaked with hot blood and my mother screamed with renewed vigor.

    Just then there came a knock at the door.

    The midwife! my father thought with relief, and flung the door open.

    Two heavy figures filled the doorway and half a dozen more darkened the snow behind them. The men were shapeless in snow-stiffened clothes, their faces wrapped against the wind. But my father knew them immediately and his heart froze. He knew by their fur hats, the knives in their belts, their rank smell of raw meat and stolen horses. They were the bandits who haunted the black forests and roadways. They attacked indiscriminately, rich and poor alike.

    The bandit leader slouched in the doorway as snow swirled past him into the room. He held out his hands, stepped closer to my father, smiled at him through his face-wraps.

    Greetings, neighbor, he said, we wondered if you might extend your hospitality to such weary travelers as ourselves.

    My father stood out of the wind, in the shadow cast by the door.

    The bandit leader pulled his knife from its sheath, casually wiped it on his sleeve, and said: You wouldn't turn anyone away on a night like this, would you? That would be too cruel, wouldn't it?

    He cocked his head; his ferrety eyes sought out my father's. His band crowded closer. Their smell swept into the room like a foul breath.

    Then my father stepped full into the light. He stood drenched in sweat, shirt torn, his beard standing up on his face in wild tufts, eyes bulging, and his arms wet to the elbows with blood. My mother's squeals flew about him in a fury, a windstorm of shrieks and venom.

    He held his hands out to them. Gentlemen, he said softly, as soon as I finish killing my wife, I will be glad to oblige you.

    They looked at the blood, his crazed eyes, the scratches my mother's nails had left on his chest. But it was my mother's wrenching, inhuman cries that drove them back out into the storm.

    I was born soon after, I slid out feet first and blue, the umbilical cord looped around my throat. Later people said it was an evil omen and I was destined for the gallows. My father caught me up, a slimy horrible thing, and shook me frantically like a defective toy until I screamed in indignation.

    My mother, who had more right than anyone to call me an evil omen, instead declared that I was a lucky child, twice blessed and twice stubborn, destined to make my own way in the world.

    Later she would go on to bear eight more children. At the start of her labors my father would walk seven kilometers into the forest and cut wood for hours, until my mother sent me to tell him it was safe to come home.

    They loved each other very much, my parents. But love was different then. People didn't talk about it, didn't even think of the word, but it was there in every mouthful of food they shared. It was a simple thing, certain, it needed no discussion. Certain as blowing out a candle. Do you need to discuss whether the room will be dark?

    My father was an enormous bearish man, hairy and dark, with a beard that enveloped half his face and seemed to trap more food than reached his mouth. People used to say that if my father got lost in the woods, he could survive two months or more with his beard to sustain him. My mother was small, less than half his size. She wore endless skirts and petticoats that billowed around her and made her seem as wide as she was tall. The skirts disguised her figure so completely that she looked the same whether she was nine months pregnant or not at all.

    My growing-up years were a dark time. The bandits lurked in the woods. The timber wolves came down from the north. They mated for life and hunted in pairs; they were the size of calves, with ice-blue eyes. They were temperamental as children. Sometimes they came right into our yards, playing like puppies; other times they could snap a man's leg in their jaws with no provocation. They were not pack wolves; they cared only for their mates and pups. In times of hunger she-wolves had been known to eat the pups of other wolves to gain the strength to nurse their own.

    And there were bands of soldiers, too, who raided the villages periodically. They were more unpredictable than the wolves: they might demand livestock, or liquor, they might set homes ablaze for the sake of warming their hands, to melt the frost off their spurs. They took the young men off for the army, dragged them away in carts as the mothers ran alongside screaming good-byes to their sons and heaping curses on the soldiers. Such men were never heard from again.

    Sometimes the bandits attacked the soldiers and stole their military boots and jackets for themselves. Sometimes the soldiers wore shaggy fur cloaks to keep out the cold. Sometimes the wolves walked on their hind legs like men.

    In the dark they were indistinguishable from one another.

    Once a week during the long winters people crowded into the village meetinghouse to pray. We were not particularly fervent; we came for the change of scene. People said that being trapped in one room with the same family members for months on end could drive a person mad.

    People liked to tell of one couple who lived in the village before I was born. The two were newlyweds, and they decided to avoid the weekly services and live out the winter with no one but each other. They spent the entire cold season sitting side by side on the same bench before the fire. They stayed there so long they grew together, flesh to flesh. Like rolls running together in the oven, their skins melted and became one. When the spring came, they could not fit themselves through the door. People who peeked through their windows saw a single broad, monstrous figure scuttling madly about the room, sideways like a crab, the two faces cleaved cheek to cheek, the hands grabbing at bits of food and stuffing them indeterminately in either mouth, the hair of both heads grown together in an impenetrable mass.

    All the men and women of the village came together. They broke down the wall of the little house, dragged the couple into the street. Eleven men and an ax were required to pry the two apart. There was blood in the snow and screaming. When the man found himself free he spun himself around three times and staggered off into the forest, bloody and torn down his left side. He was never seen again.

    The woman stayed in the village. Her screams eventually faded to a constant low muttering, but she was never again whole. Her right arm and leg atrophied; she hobbled on a crutch. People took pity on her, they brought her firewood and rags. She dug clay from a corner of her yard and made soup from it. When I was a child I saw her often, wandering the forest or the village streets, singing and gathering stones, checking over her shoulder every few paces as if expecting someone. She was harmless, and some said holy.

    When I was three my mother gave birth to my brother Ari.

    He arrived in a snowstorm, as I did. The women say he crept from the womb unaided, took air without crying. They looked at the two bony knobs on his forehead, the wiry hair on his legs, and said he was a changeling, a goblin child. The women drew back from the bed, covering their mouths with their hands and pulling their skirts tight about them. They feared the changeling spirit would corrupt their bodies as well. The midwife, who was past child-bearing age, wrapped the baby tightly and volunteered to carry him deep into the woods and leave him there. This was the practice in such cases, so that in the night the forest imps could take the child underground to his rightful home.

    But my mother frowned and held the baby's head to her breast. Stroking the thick dark hair, she said she would do the chore herself. She could not be dissuaded; as soon as the storm slackened she left me in the care of my father. Weak and bowlegged from her labor, she waddled into the forest.

    My mother returned two days later, with the child asleep in her shawl. She was pale and resolute and my father did not question her. He held her in complete awe. Also he was glad to relinquish his responsibilities. My father could kill timber wolves with a wooden club or face down outlaws, but the cries of a three-year-old child drove him to distraction.

    People said Ari seemed unchanged by the excursion, except that he had grown three teeth. My mother never offered an explanation but resumed her work and nursed the child without a word. No one dared confront her; she was known throughout the village for her fierceness. Rumors spread that she had marched into the forest and demanded an audience with the goblin king himself, then haggled with him relentlessly, as if he were a shopkeeper, until he agreed to exchange the goblin child for an identical human one.

    Ari was quick to crawl but slow to walk. As he grew he loved to watch dancing and the fall of my father's ax. He loved hair—he liked to pluck out bits of my father's beard or the hair on his arms. Ari early developed a taste for raw meat. He infuriated my mother by sneaking raw scraps from the storeroom, and trying to sink his teeth into chickens before they had stopped twitching.

    I grew up slowly. In that place many things grew slowly, the cold caused plants and people alike to shrink, contract, conserve their energy. My brother Ari soon grew taller than me, but his size was a liability; he was constantly hungry and cried through the night. My mother nursed him until the third child was born, and then she put him to sleep with me. At first I let him suck on my fingers, for comfort, but I soon discovered the sharpness of his teeth. He gnawed in his sleep. So I went down to the river and found smooth stones for him to suck, and he liked that. I gave him stones that I thought were too large for him to choke on, but I would sometimes wake up late at night and hear him crunching and swallowing them, his baby face smooth and serene.

    As Ari grew older his forehead lost some of its knobbiness; he had my father's strength and black hair. He was quick in his movements, but slow in speech. When people spoke to him, when he demanded explanations, I was the one to help him. He seemed to understand the words better in my voice.

    My parents were constantly on the lookout for the soldiers who tried for years to catch my father and force him into the army. He was older than the usual conscripts, but famous for his strength. My parents knew that if he were taken away it was likely he would never return. Whenever soldiers came into the village searching for him, he would have liked to meet them with his fists, but my mother subjected him to her methods instead. She hid him: under the eaves, in a feather bed, in a rain barrel, once in her own voluminous skirts. When the soldiers came to call that day they found her placidly sewing beside the fire. After they left my father rolled from beneath her skirts gasping for air. He was flushed and embarrassed by his proximity to her legs; he fled the house, shamefaced. In those days people were intimate only at night, in darkness, under the covers and in the strictest privacy.

    So my father evaded conscription year after year, and my mother produced more children, at yearly intervals. Practiced at labor, she learned to predict the time of birth and would lie darning stockings, peeling potatoes, until the last possible moment. My father had to add on to the house to make room for the children. He built us a kind of shed in the backyard, as if we were livestock. We slept on hay.

    My mother taught me to knit and crochet, she taught me her knowledge of roots and herbs: plants for sickness, for cleansing, for visions. Ari was my constant companion. He was monstrously strong for his age, but thoughtless; he crashed into walls, tumbled down wells. Wherever he went in the village I had to accompany him to keep him from damaging our neighbors' property. When I saw him reaching out to touch geese or lambs I had to grab him by the ear and pull him away. Soon he grew so large that when I did this he could jerk me off my feet by shaking his head.

    People in the village whispered that he had a tail like an ox rolled up inside his trousers. I had seen no such tail when he was a baby; but then perhaps it sprouted when he entered adolescence, which began early in him. The villagers' gossip did not affect him, but when my mother scolded he buried his head in her skirts and howled.

    He often went on rampages in the forest. We did not know what he did there; he would disappear for hours and return with his hair full of burrs, his clothes in shreds, a brown crust on his lips, peaceful.

    Only once did I lose my temper with him. It was one evening as I sat mending his padded jacket for the tenth time in as many days. The fire was low, and I pricked my finger again and again, and the hay padding was full of the small creatures my brother liked to collect, they rustled and squeaked horribly. Finally I flung the jacket at him, as he squatted humming in his usual corner, and cried: What is wrong with you? Have you no sense at all? Why can't you act like other people?

    He hugged the jacket to him, rocked back and forth on his heels humming in the back of his throat and staring glassy-eyed into the fire. My mother looked up sharply from the child she was nursing and said: There's nothing wrong with him, he's perfect, he belongs here. The look on her face, as she stroked Ari's hair and held the child to her breast, made me feel I was the strange one.


* * *


When I was twelve my father killed a she-wolf and my mother sewed the hide into a cape for me. The wolf's head made the hood, with the ears still intact; the front legs draped my shoulders, the tail dragged on the ground. It was a heavy, coarse thing with a rank smell, but it was warm.

    That winter my mother sent me out often to gather the medicinal plants that grew under the snow. She could not go herself, she was expecting her fifth child and could not bend. So I put on the fur hood and spent hours in the woods. The trees there were dark skinned, broad limbed; even without their leaves they blocked the sunlight so that the forest was dim even at noon. The air was always deathly still except for the hush and slide of shifting snow, the trees moaning softly in the wind.

    Each time I went I pushed deeper into the forest. I kept my ears pricked for the muffled crunch of footsteps in the snow. I hung a drawstring bag around my neck, crawled on my knees, and dug through the snow with my bare hands to find the plants my mother requested. My fingers grew red while my back and arms ran with sweat. I dug, warmed my hands in my armpits, dug again.

    One afternoon as I knelt resting with my hands inside my blouse I heard a branch snap. It was early yet, but the light in the forest was like dusk, the snow glowed intensely blue. I had the sense of trees crowding around on all sides as if watching.

    Ho there, young lady, said a voice.

    I glanced around, pushed back my hood, and looked up. I saw dangling boots. A man sat perched on a branch high above my head. I wanted to run, but my knees were locked from kneeling in the cold so long, and I couldn't move.

    He said: It's a lovely day, isn't it? and smiled.

    I stared. I knew he was a bandit, I could tell by his clothes, and the soft leather boots that came to his knees. The people in my village swaddled themselves against the cold, they wrapped themselves in layers of wool and burlap. But this man was dressed in clothes that cleaved to his body, tight trousers and short jacket, leaving his arms and legs free. He lounged there loose limbed and catlike.

    You've been quite busy, haven't you? he said.

    I managed to stand up. Now I could see his face more clearly. It was a clean-shaven, sharp-featured face, blotched red and white from the cold. He smiled; there was something strained in the smile, in the way the sore-chapped lips stretched back from the teeth. His eyes were extraordinarily bright and piercing, I had never seen anything like them, little chips of ice in his face; even from that distance I could feel them drilling at me. His hair lay over his brow in long heavy tangles.

    He looked so foreign to me; I had seen so few young men in my life. In my village adolescent boys were forced into the army the moment they began to lose their boyish figures, and the older men were like my father: bearded and barrel-chested with hair in their noses.

    He tossed his head like a horse to shake the hair from his face. I saw the hunting knife in its sheath slung across his chest. I longed to run, my throat ached with it; but I could not look away from him, I was painfully fascinated by him, as by a mad dog, so that I was afraid to turn my back on him even to run away.

    What have you got there, young lady? he said. His voice was the strangest thing of all, as if what he said was not at all what he meant. My knees creaked. I showed him the dirt-colored mushroom in my palm.

    Give it here, he said. I gave it a toss; he swung out and caught it. I looked at him in that moment, stretched against the sky. I saw the straining cords of his throat, the delicate underside of jawbone.

    I thought: he should wear a scarf, he will catch cold.

    He held the mushroom between thumb and forefinger, inspected it with disgust.

    What's it for? he asked.

    I could feel myself flushing.

    Speak up he said, what will happen to me if I eat it?

    It is for easing your birthing pains, I whispered.

    He barked a short laugh, then said, I'll keep it, since you found it near my tree. It's my favorite tree, you see, because it has a face like my old granny. Do you see her nose, where that branch is broken off, and these two knotholes are eyes, and the rotted hollow down below just like her pruned-up mouth. Come closer and look. Come closer, I said.

    I had never thought about things in such a way before, but suddenly when he described the face I could see it, as if something hidden had been swiftly revealed by his words, and I realized with a kind of sickening jolt that there was more than one way of seeing the world.

    Since you gave me this, I should give you something in trade, he said. He slipped his hand into his shirt, pulled something out, and dropped it carelessly in the snow.

    I should not have picked it up, but I did. It was shaped like an egg, but covered in stones that glittered like fire and ice, and shiny metal etched with tiny curling designs like lace. It glowed there in my cupped hands. I had never seen such colors before in my life.

    Look inside, he said.

    I peered into the peephole at the small end of the egg and saw a walled city with turnip-shaped towers, a garden, a sparkling frozen fountain, a domed sky full of stars.

    Oh, I said. I raised it to my eye again. Such green, such gold, such unearthly blue. When I looked up at him once more the outside world had gone dull.

    You like it, do you? he said. He was cleaning his nails with a knife as long as his forearm.

    I nodded. His eyes moved in his face like insects.

    Aren't you a pretty girl? he said.

    No, I said. I was not being insolent. I did not understand what he meant. In my village we knew only big and small, strong and weak, alive and dead. Any further distinctions were unnecessary.

    Ha, he said. The pink tongue curled around his teeth.

    Suddenly he straightened and slid the knife in its sheath. He reached into his shirt for the mushroom and with one smooth movement threw it far into the trees, so far I could not hear it land.

    Look at that, he said. I seem to have lost your mushroom.

    I saw the muscles tensing up beneath his trousers; the branch creaked a warning.

    I suppose, he said, to be fair, you ought to give me something else.

    I saw him preparing to leap. I spun and ran.

    I staggered wildly, panting, limping on my stiff knees; I ran in a nightmare, the air thick as water, the afternoon light dying moment by moment. My breath crashed so loud in my ears I could hear nothing; I stumbled, fell, gathered up an armful of skirts and flailed on. I glanced over my shoulder expecting to see him just behind me, laughing with his little pointed teeth.

    But he was not. I was light enough to run on the hard upper crust of snow, but the man had broken through it with his leap. I could see him far in the distance, wallowing and thrashing waist-deep in soft snow. Faintly I could hear his curses.

    I ran home breathless, dragging my heavy soaked clothes. My mother looked at my slick face and asked what was the matter. I told her about the man in the forest, the tree like a face, his leap from the sky.

    I did not tell her about the egg.

    The egg! I should have flung it away when I ran, but I had been too frightened to think. So I kept it in my pocket, told no one; it was my first secret.

    My mother knit her brow. She warned me not to tell my father. His solution would be to go bellowing off to the bandits' camp in the woods, swinging his fists, cursing and brawling until they cut him to pieces.

    She told me she would take care of it and said nothing further. Late that night I heard a stirring in the house. I crept to the window and saw her in the moonlight, waddling heavily toward the dark trees.

    A week later she told me to go back to the forest to finish gathering the plants she needed. Her time was near. I did not want to go, I looked at her pleadingly, but she brushed me away and told me it was all right.

    So I dressed as before and trudged back to the forest. The sky was dark and lowering, thick clouds scurried across the sky as if fleeing something just over the horizon. I jumped at every noise; darkness seemed to tease at the corners of my eyes. I did not want to go there, and yet I went there, I was drawn back to the same place I had been before, drawn by a kind of dread and a dreadful curiosity.

    I approached the familiar tree. I saw a dark shape in the snow at its base and hesitated. It did not move. An abrupt hush fell over the woods, no wind stirred. I paused in my tracks and then a horrible cawing rose up all around me as hundreds of black crows launched themselves from the surrounding trees and took to the air. There were hundreds of them, flapping in their clumsy way like black rags jerked aloft on strings, beaks open with their harsh croaking. I felt droppings splatter on my cheek. I knew crows liked to travel alone or in pairs, they were not flocking birds.

    Their cries faded away. I reached the tree and there, in a trampled place beneath its branches, lay my bandit. I knelt beside him. His throat was torn open. The blood had frozen before it dried; bright red smears colored the snow. I could study him closely now. His eyes were open and congealing; the irises were green, they looked crystallized, faceted, hard as glass. The skin on his face was smooth. I could not have said how old he was.

    His hair fell back from his brow as if he had tossed his head back a moment before. His body lay stretched out loosely, as if he were napping, but all was cold and hard. His lip turned up; he seemed to be smiling. I could not be sure that he was dead. In that winter country the cold slowed the dying just as it slowed the living.

    I learned later that my mother had gone to the forest at night carrying the scent glands from the she-wolf my father had killed; she had used them to leave wolf scent on all the trees in the area. This drew the she-wolf's grieving mate, he came following the smell and seeking her; and as he nosed about whimpering like a child at the roots of trees, smelling her scent and unable to find her, he must have looked in the uncertain dusky light like something he was not. Perhaps to someone sitting in the trees above, he might have looked like a girl, kneeling, dressed in fur. Perhaps he had looked like me.

    Imagine him jumping down.

    The man and the wolf must both have been disappointed to see each other.

    I sat a long time in the snow, looking at the face, holding the sparkling cold hand of a man preserved in ice; and for the first time I saw that I was not of that country, I did not have my mother's fierceness in me, I did not have that fierceness of love that had kept my family alive for generations in that harsh place. It was a blind devotion, a vicious bloody animal love, and I wanted no part of it; for the first time I knew that I would leave.

    I feared my mother, who pushed out child after child with her athletic loins, and seemed to grow stronger with each one, and clung to her children more tightly with each passing year. I grew in secret. I waited.


There were three of them.

    They were always there, in the village where I grew up. With their milky eyes and incessant hissing, their hands tugging at invisible strings and weaving them all together.

    Three old women.

    They sat in a row on a single bench in the center of the village. Three women with the same face. People said they were sisters, or mother and daughters, cousins, no one knew for sure. In winter they huddled in their shawls with snow up to their knees. In summer the flies hung back from them at a respectful distance.

    They had the same face, skin delicate with age, soft and threatening to tear like wet paper. The same face three times over, same violet-colored eyes sunk in purple-veined pouches of skin. People said if you watched closely you'd see them blink and breathe in unison. The pulses beating together in their temples.

    In their hair insects wove their cocoons and greasy silk tents.

    They had the same face but different mouths. One woman had an overabundance of teeth, two rows of them, overlapping each other like shingles. Another had no teeth at all, and a mouth that seemed to lead nowhere, a shallow wet impression in her face. The third had only one tooth. It was three inches long and pointed, a long yellow tusk, protruding from the corner of her mouth like a crafty cigar.

    They worked as they jabbered. They sewed in unison, as if one brain led their six hands. One would unspool the thread, the second would measure it, the third would cut it. Or they would knit, weaving their way inward from three different directions, meeting in the middle to make sweaters designed for hunchbacks or armless giants. They could pluck a chicken in a matter of seconds, their hands swarming over the limp body like ants.

    We had forgotten their names and were embarrassed to ask. They never moved from their bench. Their debris—the feathers, the ends of thread, the wads of phlegm they coughed up and spat into bits of paper, the crusts of bread—piled up around them year after year. Some said they were the grandmothers, or great-grandmothers or great-aunts, of everyone in the village. No one could remember. Their faces were indistinct with age, their features had run together like melted wax; no eyebrows, noses flattened and ridgeless, earlobes stretched long.

    Talking, gossiping. Day and night.

    Their voices were identical, and shrill, birds scolding. They interrupted and spoke over each other, a sharp irritating music, almost in harmony. Sometimes sweet and wet, mixed with harshness, like the sound of a mother crooning a lullaby to her child and bickering with her husband between verses.

    They were telling each other stories, those three. Telling each other everything that had ever happened since time began.

    We did not like to go near them. But still we could feel their eyes, hear their hissing and know they were speaking of us. The words they said would sound familiar, as if they had been eaves-dropping on our dreams.

    They recounted their version of history for anyone who would listen. We did not like to listen. We tried to ignore them, or drown them out. They spoke of things too terrible to bear. Like a mother who needs to forget the pain of childbirth so that she can go on to bear more children, the people I lived among needed to forget so they could go on.

    The three women wove together threads of dark brown and red-gold and black; they were the hairs of everyone in the village, people said. We all felt the tug. We felt it when hesitating at a crossroads, we would feel a pressure on our scalps, and then later we would blame our decisions, good or bad, on the three women whom we thought of as witches or saints but were careful to never dignify with a spoken name.

    I dreamt of them sometimes, and woke with my hands pressed to my ears.

    There came a time when they began to speak, more vehemently than before, about a darkness rising up, a dark tide turning and coming to wash over us. Of atrocities beyond our comprehension, bodies piled high as haystacks, blood flowing like rivers through the streets, fire that would roll across the earth, blotting out the sun and making everything black. They spoke urgently of these things, gesturing, their spit flying in our faces.

    But we ignored them, we told ourselves the darkness they spoke of was merely the next nightfall, or their own encroaching senility and approaching deaths which we secretly hoped for, to be rid of them. They're mad, we said. Don't listen, we told each other.

    And it happened that it all came to pass, everything, just as they had said, with biblical accuracy. By then I had left the village, I had sought to escape their wagging tongues, the tugging of their crabbed fingers, the gossip they told of a future that was written, sealed, inescapable. As irrevocable as the past.

    I told you so, they must have said when everything did come to pass. When the walls came down and the fire burst forth and the people raised their hands above their heads in supplication and swayed like a field of wheat in the wind.

    I was not there to hear their voices ring out yet I heard the words anyway, those words followed me long afterward like a shadow, a slug trail, a mocking school yard chant: I told you so I told you so I told you so.

(Continues...)

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Reading Group Guide

In this utterly original novel about mothers, daughters, and love, Judy Budnitz gives the traditional folktale an electrifying twist as she follows four generations of women from an Eastern European village to the tenaments of an American city. Ilana, born into a family ruled by a formidable mother, embarks on an epic journey to the New World, and is met along the way by evil, magic, and good fortune. The daughter, grand-daughter, and great-granddaughter who follow in her foosteps share her special powers of observation and, often, destruction. The result is a family saga unlike any other: a hilarious, heart-breaking story of family ties that bind.

Discussion Questions:
1. Where did you locate Ilana's homeland? Did you imagine it in terms of actual time, actual geography, actual historical events? Or did you place her homeland in a more metaphorical realm? Or in an amalgamation of the two?

2. Does the inclusion of recognizeable fairy-tale elements add to, or detract from, the reliability of Ilana's story?

3. How is this story different from/similar to other stories of the immigrant experience you have read?

4. Which character did you understand/empathize with most? Least?

5. Was Ilana a reliable narrator? Did your perception of her change over the course of the book? Did the last part of the book cause you to reconsider the reliability of her narration in the beginning?

6. The changing points of view allow you to both share a character's innermost thoughts and also learn how other characters view her from the outside. How do the changing points of view affect your opinion of the characters? Is each character's view of herself similar to, or wildly different from, the way other characters see her?

7. How does each character define truth? How does each decide whether a memory is trustworthy or false? What kind of proof does each require?

8. How are the various male characters presented in the story? Are they depicted accurately, or are their images altered/inflated/deflated by the particular narrator describing them?

9. How does the title relate to the content?

10. The book returns again and again to the topic of childbirth, and the ensuing consequences. In this story, does having children result in positive or negative consequences? Or both?

11. The book depicts a series of mother-daughter relationships. In nearly every case, a daughter tries to resist becoming like her mother, yet in the process ends up behaving exactly like her. What are the character traits that are passed down from generation to generation? How does each daughter try to rebel against her mother's ways? How does she inadvertently fall into her mother's behavior?

12. Sometimes outside forces impose conflict on the characters. But in many cases the characters inflict trouble on themselves by refusing to see the truth. How do the characters harm themselves, through self-delusions and denial? How do they break away from, or succumb to, these self-inflicted obstacles?

13. How does the book explore the idea of appearance vs. reality? In the situations involving theater, painting, and storytelling, are the arts presented as truthful or deceptive? Could this book itself be considered yet another art form of questionable reliability?

14. Why are quotation marks not used?

15. How did the language and imagery enforce the ideas of the book?

16. How did Nomie's narration at the end of the book compare to Ilana's narration at the beginning? Was Nomie's more/less realistic? More/less believable? More/less vivid, sensory?

17. Is the book pointing out the folly of self-delusion? Or is it suggesting that all truth is subjective, that truth lies in each person's individual perception?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 8, 2008

    Intriguing, Astonishing, and Brutally Honest

    I, like the others, bought this book mainly because of the attractive cover. After years of it sitting on my shelf I finally picked the book up and ended up reading it in a day. Human flaw, obsession, death, love, happiness, it's all here. The relationship between mother and daughter is depicted so well and so honestly it hurts. It is truly amazing and has a lesson to teach. The fantasy only enhances the reality. It is a must read!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 12, 2000

    I must agree with Loriann, this is one hell of a read!

    This tale which mixes fantasy and stark reality will weave itself into your psyche until you HAVE to finish the whole book in one sitting. Loriann, this was truly an excellent tip!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2000

    ALMOST SPEECHLESS!!!

    I must admit that when I picked up this book, I did so becsause I liked the cover, I was truly underestimating it. This has been one of the most amazing literary journeys I have ever had the pleasure of being a prat of. It is no ordinary 'immigrant coming to America' book. It combines fantasy with reality while telling the story of one woman who comes to America and the stories of the generations she creates. This is an amazing book!!!! A MUST READ!!!!

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