The River Midnight

( 2 )

Overview

In her stunning debut novel, Lilian Nattel brilliantly brings to life the richness of shtetl culture through the story of an imagined village: Blaszka, Poland. Myth meets history and characters come to life through the stories of women's lives and prayers, their secrets, and the intimate details of everyday life.
When they were young, four friends were known as the vilda bayas, the wild creatures. But their adult lives have taken them in different directions, and they've grown ...

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Overview

In her stunning debut novel, Lilian Nattel brilliantly brings to life the richness of shtetl culture through the story of an imagined village: Blaszka, Poland. Myth meets history and characters come to life through the stories of women's lives and prayers, their secrets, and the intimate details of everyday life.
When they were young, four friends were known as the vilda bayas, the wild creatures. But their adult lives have taken them in different directions, and they've grown apart. One woman, Misha, is now the local midwife. In a world where strict rules govern most activities, Misha, an unmarried, independent spirit becomes the wayward heart of Blaszka and the keeper of town secrets. But when Misha becomes pregnant and refuses to divulge the identity of her baby's father, hers becomes the biggest secret of all, and the village must decide how they will react to Misha's scandalous ways.
Nattel's magical novel explores the tension between men and women, and celebrates the wordless and kinetic bond of friendship.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Tammie Bob Chicago Tribune How Nattel turns the ordinary stuff of [shtetl life] into images that transcend time, place and culture is the real magic of The River Midnight.

R.Z. Sheppard Time The River Midnight [is reminiscent] of Marc Chagall's romantic paintings. Like Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County and García Márquez's Macondo, Nattel's imagined backwater is shot through with mythic significance.

Sandra Brooks-Dillard The Denver Post The River Midnight, Lilian Nattel's lovely first novel, is like Fiddler on the Roof without the music...lovingly written, beautifully crafted, meticulously researched.

Megan Harlan Entertainment Weekly Nattel's emotional, panoramic narrative proves extraordinary.

Natasha Stovall The Washington Post [A] mesmerizing first novel...The River Midnight is not simply remarkable as a historical text. Nattel's flair for the telling detail is just one treasure in her bag of writer's tricks.

Roy Hoffman The New York Times Book Review As enchanting as a Chagall mural...Nattel writes with refreshing bawdiness.

R. Z. Sheppard Time [Nattel's] supple narrative technique weds the discipline of scholarship with artistic license. The River Midnight is inspired match-making.

Janice Pomerance Nimura Newsday A magic-realist novel with equal attention to both magic and reality — not an easy line to walk....Nattel weaves all the strands together in a visionary climax that unites the village and points across the generations to herself.

Laura Rose USA Today Readers who appreciate the magic of quality research wrapped in a well-told tale will find Blaszka worth a visit.

Paula Friedman The San Diego Union-Tribune Lilian Nattel has written a first novel of wondrous mythical depth and rare spiritual beauty....No doubt possessing prodigious literary gifts, Nattel's depth of study and passion for her subject also accounts for The River Midnight's stunning originality.

Denver Post
Nattel's lovely first novel is like Fiddler on the Roof without music.
Roy Hoffman
Nattel writes with refreshing bawdiness about the vilda hayas, but she shies away from delving into...complex relationship[s]....With fervor, and intermittent moments of revelation, [the characters persist]. And so does Lilian Nattel. —The New York Times Book Review
Megan Harlan
...Nattel's emotionalpanoramic narrative proves extraordinary. —Entertainment Weekly
Newsday
Nattel has reimagined a fictional shtetl, stripped away the veils of sentimentality and created a magic-realist novel with equal attention to both magic and reality.
San Diego Union-Tribune
Stunning...a first novel of wondrous mythical depth and rare spiritual beauty.
Tikkun Magazine
The novel's richly nuanced tapestry allows us to enter into a world that is at once familiar and lost forever. The allure of Nattel's story is that she manages to avoid nostalgic fluff and yet give us a sense of what was so beautiful and magical in Jewish life in Eastern Europe.
Laura Rose
Nattel handily interweaves different viewpoints of events from a variety of characters while seamlessly incorporating the fabric of daily life. Her detail encompasses religious customs, food preparation and quotes from the Torah, yet a veil of mystical dreaminess softens the harsher realities.... Readers who appreciate the magic of quality research wrapped in a well-told tale will find Blaszka worth a visit.
USA Today
R.Z. Sheppard
Like Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County and Garcia Marquez's Macondo, Nattel's imagined backwater is shot through with mythic significance.
Time Magazine
Library Journal
Polish Jewish life at the end of the 19th century in the fictional shtetl of Blaszka is the setting of this powerful debut novel, which balances magical elements with historical detail. Here, strong women ran the businesses, while the men are concerned with religious matters, the village council, the tavern, and the Polish authorities. Misha, the midwife, is a bigger-than-life earth mother who concocts herbal remedies for the village while safeguarding its secrets, including the name of the father of her unborn child. As a girl, she danced in the woods with her four friends, the vilda hayas, or wild creatures. The story of what happens to these girls as they become women is told first from the women's perspective, then from the men's, and finally from Misha's. Reminiscent of the work of I.B. Singer, this portrayal of a world that vanished with the Holocaust is filled with human tension and wonder. -- Molly Abramowitz, Silver Spring, Maryland
Entertainment Weekly Magazine
Set in an impoverished shtetl in 1890's Poland, this imaginative debut centers on four young Jewish women and their responses to traditional gender roles.
Lara Webb
In The River Midnight, Lilian Nattel writes about a river. She writes about the hour of midnight. She writes about angels and demons, flickering candles, a traveler, a director, a midwife, a water-carrier, a baker, an invisible frog that if kissed -- well, you've heard the fairy tale. And, at the end of her book, a fairy tale is exactly what Nattel compares her own story to:
"In the village of Blaszka, as in every other place, even in fairy tales, there was an oldest son and a youngest son, a rich sister and a poor sister, the clever, the wise, the wicked and naïve, a constellation of people, seemingly motionless, a river of stars in the midnight sky."
And yet, at novel's end, it is not these sons or sisters or constellation of people that the reader senses are important to Nattel. Rather it is the mushrooms the sisters pick, the books the sons study, the water the water-carrier hauls, the dough the baker kneads, the prayers these people lift up to the midnight sky that are so particularly vivid and make up the heart of The River Midnight.

In her author's note, Nattel writes, "Blaszka is a fictional village, mythical as shtetls must be, since they're gone now." But in writing about Blaszka, a small Jewish shtetl in Russian-occupied Poland during the turn of the century, she has taken great pains to make sure that "all of the details of people's lives, their songs and prayers, the geography of the cities and the landscapes described are factual." Her research is meticulous (she even provides a glossary and a list of recommended readings), and she prides herself on the journey of discovery she took to provide her novel with the details and flavor of daily life. Some of the characters who populate Blaszka seem ready to dance off the page: "Hayim twisted the handkerchief around his wrist, swinging Misha with a surge of energy...his feet pounding the floor, the music pounding in his chest, the room spinning out of sight, the guests small and far away."

Nattel begins her book as one would any fairy tale: "Listen." "There is nothing to be afraid of." "Sssshh, the story is about to start." And then immediately transports the reader to the middle of Blaszka's square on market day: "Girls run through the crowd, carrying baskets of rolls, pretzels, pierogies, and herring cut into small rings. The herrings almost speak. Take your pick, the large smelly ones, horse herring, pickled, smoked, or packed in fat. Steam rises from the warm baskets in the winter air. The square smells of vinegar, yeast, and horse dung." Only after laying out the town for us -- the bridge, the tavern, the synagogue, and the house of the midwife -- does Nattel introduce her characters. Beginning with Hannah-Leah, the butcher's wife, each character has a single chapter in which to recite her or his history and to ponder with longing, fear, and a little bit of excitement, a possible future.

Hannah-Leah is big, blond, and beautiful, and although she can't seem to have a baby, she makes the best mushroom soup in all of Blaszka. Her neighbor and childhood friend, Faygela, on the other hand, is slender, slight, and impossibly fertile. The mother of more children than she can keep up with, Faygela works in the bakery with her daughters, "braiding round loaves of Sabbath hallahs," mixing "white flour, soft as silk, with eggs, sugar, oil, and water," and dreaming of the stories she would write if only she could find the time. Emma, the youngest voice in the book, is without a mother at all. The daughter of one of Hannah-Leah's and Faygela's closest friends, who died in America, she spends her free time studying insurrections of the past, plotting revolts of her own, and learning that maybe, just maybe, Blaszka isn't such a bad place to be after all. Alta Fruma is her aunt. Seemingly staid and stern, she is known publicly for her wonderful cheeses and privately for something else entirely.

Among the men of Blaszka are Hershel, Hannah-Leah's husband and the village butcher. Big, strong, and adept at slaughtering the village cows, he has a softer touch than even he realizes. Hayim, the water-carrier, stumbles over words but speaks beautifully through pictures. Yarush, who is far from beautiful, is a brute who drinks and steals from the village -- but at least he gives everyone something to pray about. Leading these prayers is Berekh, the town rabbi who becomes the best kind of teacher of all by doing what nobody else seems to: listening.

And then there is Misha the midwife, the keeper of all Blaszka's secrets: the secret healing power of herbs, the secret pains and fears of each villager, even a secret or two of her own. Ultimately, she becomes so weighed down by these secrets that only the village itself can bring her back up.

Each character in The River Midnight has a tale to tell, a lesson to learn, a parable to teach. And although each one possesses his or her own distinct strengths, weaknesses, hopes, and beliefs, it is the characters' collective willingness to give, Nattel suggests, that affects the past, present, even the future. But again, it is not so much the individual characters the reader remembers. Instead, one is left with the sense that each character is a different version of a larger, single character -- that of the village itself.

In the end, it is Blaszka the reader remembers, the details of daily life that Nattel so carefully incorporates into her story: the soup, the bread, the bottle of wine opened on Passover, the cooling waters of the rushing river, the length of a hemline, the proper way to cut a curd, the exact length of a butcher's knife, the prayers of a rabbi, the pleas of a zogerin. While the reader may not come to know Hannah-Leah or Yarush or Hayim intimately, one does come away with an intimate knowledge of what life in a Jewish shtetl would have been like.

The River Midnight is not so much a novel as it is a history, a carefully and lovingly constructed history of a "mythical" shtetl. In her own way, Nattel has also created a fairy tale, full of ghosts, magic, and, of course, that tiny green frog, and with a wink and a nod, Nattel ends her tale only to begin yet again, "Once upon a time."
Lara Webb is a freelance writer and editor in New York City.
— barnesandnoble.com

San Diego Union-Tribune
Stunning...a first novel of wondrous mythical depth and rare spiritual beauty.
The Denver Post
Nattel's lovely first novel is like Fiddler on the Roof without music.
Kirkus Reviews
A young Canadian writer's brilliant first novel skillfully evokes what Irving Howe called the "World of Our Fathers" and the genius of such literary forerunners and likely influences as Isaac Bashevis Singer. Nattel's complex story begins in the Polish village of Blaszka in the late 19th century, a decade or so following the Russian pogroms that cast lengthening shadows over the later lives of her characters-most importantly, four women who grew up together as "vilda hayas" (wild children) and took varying paths to womanhood and fulfillment. Childless Hanna-Lea, wife of Hershel the butcher, haunts the village with the sorrowful fact of her barrenness. Faygela surrenders her dream of being a teacher to become instead the mother of five and, eventually, to see her daughter arrested for "radical" political acts. Zia-Sara emigrates to America with her husband and, dying there, leaves her children adrift between Blaszka and their strange new country. And village midwife Misha (who has "more life in her than the whole of Russian Poland"), refusing to be bound by propriety or tradition, divorces her husband and later proudly, publicly gives birth on the very eve of Yom Kippur. Nattel weaves these stories together expertly in the richly detailed opening chapters (set variously in Blaszka, Warsaw, Paris, and New York City); then focuses just as intensely on the several men in her women's lives (the luckless water-carrier Hayim and morose Rabbi Berekh, whose attraction to the forthright Misha will change him forever, are among the most vividly drawn); and finally concentrates on Misha's volatile relationships with her closest friends (who submit to their traditional obligations in differingdegrees), and on the wholesale changes wrought by the new century.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684853048
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 10/28/1999
  • Edition description: 1 SCRIBNER
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 5.26 (w) x 8.01 (h) x 0.88 (d)

Meet the Author

Lilian Nattel won the Martin and Beatrice Fisher Jewish Book Award
for her internationally acclaimed first novel, The River Midnight. She lives in Toronto with her family.

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Read an Excerpt

Time grows short at the end of a century, like winter days when night falls too soon. In the dusk, angels and demons walk. Who knows who they are? Or which is which. But there they are, sneaking their gifts into the crevices of change. Even in a place like Blaszka, less than a dot on the map of Russian-occupied Poland.
Someone might say that so-and-so is an angel or so-and-so a demon. But make no mistake, it's just a question of style. One sympathizes, the other provokes. But their mission is the same, and so is their destination.
It's a cold day, the short Friday of winter, the 20th of Tevet 5654, or you might call it the 29th of December 1893, according to the Christian calendar. Everyone's in a rush, anxious to finish their business before the sun sets. Once darkness falls, the Sabbath rules. Candlelight will have no other purpose than its beauty, and women and men will make love in honor of the Sabbath.
Listen. You can hear the excitement in the village square. "Fresh, hot, only two kopecks." Girls run through the crowd, carrying baskets of rolls, pretzels, pierogies, and herring cut into small rings. The herrings almost speak. Take your pick, the large smelly ones, horse herring, pickled, smoked, or packed in fat. Steam rises from the warm baskets in the winter air. The square smells of vinegar, yeast, and horse dung. Men and women blow into their cold hands to warm them, pinching this and sniffing that, bargaining as if for their souls, undeterred by the crash of a stall that collapses under its mountain of earthenware. This is what keeps Blaszka together, the flimsy stalls piled high with everything, where people lean toward each other, bargaining, touching what they need, shaking it, holding it up to the light.
Hurry, the villagers say, the Sabbath is coming. Everything has to close early today. Am I asking about money? Do I worry about money? I know that you, lady, will give it to me later, that you will pay. Look at this, straight from Plotsk, the best quality. A pity it should lie here, unused. Let me put it into your basket for you. Just a few kopecks. It costs less than air.
Fifty Jewish families and six Polish tenant farmers live in the village. But on market day, every Tuesday and Friday, dozens of Christian peasants, who farm the land along the Pólnocna River, come down to Blaszka. In the village square they bargain and in Perlmutter's tavern, they drink vodka with beer and eat cheese and pickles and hard-boiled eggs.
A Jew can never be a peasant, even if he looks and acts like one, nor a gentleman either. Such categories apply only to Christians in Poland, each of them having a place on the land. But by law the Jews are townspeople. Even if they are farmers, they are townspeople borrowing the land; they have no right to it. Within their towns the Jews can make their own distinctions, so long as they service the people of the land. So in Blaszka, Jews buy the peasants' produce and sell goods from Plotsk. Jews are tinsmiths and blacksmiths and cobblers and tailors and wheelwrights and barrelmakers and butchers and bakers. They speak Yiddish and Polish and a smattering of Russian, on weekdays they bargain and on the Sabbath they rest.
The village square isn't paved. It's marked in one corner by the bridge, in another corner by the tavern, by the synagogue in the third corner, and where the square dips down toward the Pólnocna River, by the house of Misha the midwife. Her house stands on stilts so that the spring floods flow under it, bringing a rich mud that makes the vegetables in her garden grow larger than anywhere else. If you stood on the doorstep of Misha's house, you could see the entire village, the river curling around it, the woods behind the river, the lanes leading out of the village square, the small houses, each with an eating room in front and sleeping rooms behind separated by a halfway where the hens roost in the winter. Across the river, in the new part of Blaszka, you could see the ruins of the mill and the woods overgrowing abandoned houses.
There is a legend about the Pólnonca River. It's said that a saint was martyred in the river's waters at midnight, resulting in the conversion and baptism of the local tribe. Pólnoc in Polish means midnight, and so the river was named. But others argue that pólnoc also means north, the Pólnonca so named because it enters the Vistula River from the north.
The Pólnonca is frozen now, children sliding on its surface. In front of her house, Misha stands beside her stall, her hands on her hips. She's bigger than any man in Blaszka. Her table is crowded with jars and bottles, powders and ointments and liquids for women's troubles, and men's, too. "There's nothing to be afraid of," she says.
All right, the women say, but you'd better watch your behind or the Evil One will send someone to kick it while you're not paying attention.
"Well, let him just try to make some business with me." Misha holds out her hand, beckoning the invisible stranger. She grins, her gold tooth flashing in the thin winter light. "Don't worry," Misha says, "if someone comes from the other side, he'll soon be running out of Blaszka with his tail between his legs. You can be sure of it."

In a small house off the village square, an old woman is teaching the little girls their letters. Tell us about Misha, they beg. We want to hear the story about Misha and Manya again. Please, please. The old woman puts down her pencil. "Well, I knew Misha's mother very well. She was so happy when she had a daughter, but she had one fear. Do you know what that was?" The children shake their heads. "That her daughter would turn out like Manya. You've heard of Manya, haven't you?" Yes, yes, the little girls say, Manya the witch comes in the night to steal away wicked children. "But you're not wicked children, are you?" The girls shake their heads, no, no, no. "Now, listen carefully, children. Before Misha, there was Blema, her mother. Before Blema was Miriam, Misha's grandmother. And before Miriam was?" Who? the children ask. "Manya!" The old woman leans forward, wriggling her clawed fingers at the children until they squeal. "Oh, Manya was bigger than any man, and no one could tame her until they put her to death for casting spells. Blema was afraid that her baby should turn out like Manya, God forbid. So Blema named her baby Miriam after her own mother, who was a good woman. Modest and quiet. Like you girls, yes? But you can't cheat fate, children.
"Blema carried her baby in a shawl on her back when she went to the peasants' cottages. The peasants liked to play with the little one. They called her Marisha, you know that's Polish for Miriam. But the baby couldn't say Marisha or even Miriam. What came out was Misha. The peasants said it must be her true name, and that, since misha means bear in Polish, the girl would grow up to be as dangerous as a mother bear. And because Misha is a man's name among the Russians, she would also be as fierce as a Cossack. This is what came to be. I'm sure you heard your mothers say so. When a woman is in childbirth, even the Angel of Death is afraid of Misha."
In the village square, the watercarrier rushes by Misha's stall, his buckets swinging wildly on their yoke. As his foot knocks against a stone, he stumbles, holding onto her table for balance. And then he's gone toward the bridge.
Across the bridge is what used to be the wealthy part of Blaszka. There among the ruins of abandoned houses, you can see the village well and beside it the bathhouse with its marble columns, built with the miller's money, may he rest in peace. Beside it is the foundation of the new synagogue, never finished.
Inside the bathhouse, the old men sit naked on the benches, sweating in the steam that rises as the attendant pours water over the hot stones. At the end of the room is the sunken bath, the mikva, with its purifying water. Before the men leave, they'll dip in the mikva to make themselves ready for the Sabbath.
Why does the butcher get to sit in the second row of the synagogue so close to the Holy Ark? they complain. He's just a proster, a plain person, like us. A man should know his place. The proster do the work, the baalebatim make the money, and the shayner tell you what to do, either because they're rich enough or they're scholars.
Sure, that's how it is in most places, but you can't expect it here in Blaszka. Who would sit in the second row if not the butcher? In the days before the Russians blew up the mill, we had shayner in Blaszka. Fine people. But now? There's just proster. Anybody who was anybody left Blaszka. And why not? You can walk for two hours down the road and you're in Plotsk. The capital of the gubernia. Twenty-six thousand people. A theater. A Jewish hospital. Schools. Everything.
Tell me, what's a town when there's no fine people driving around in their carriages and telling you what's what? That's the kind of village Blaszka is. We have a rabbi whose greatest friends are unbelievers — I saw him get a letter from France myself — and he can't stand the sight of a lit match, either.
Never mind. It's good to be alive. A little schnapps, a little singing, something nice to eat on Shabbas, it's all right. I'm old, but I'm in no rush to leave. Tell me, if it's so good there in the next world, why doesn't anyone come back to tell us about it?
Outside the bathhouse, a lane leads to the bridge and across the bridge, the road from Blaszka leaves the village square, following the Pólnocna River down to the Vistula where it meets the highway that runs from Plotsk to Warsaw. Here, at the juncture of the Vistula and the Pólnocna Rivers, there is a shiny black carriage with THE GOLEM PLAYERS painted in yellow on the side. The horse snorts, flicking her tail, braided with a yellow ribbon. Crystals of breath have formed around her mouth, and the creature licks them off with her thirsty tongue.
The Director, in his top hat, sits aloft, puffing on his mahogany pipe, horns of smoke curling upward. He looks sideways at the landscape, the bare trees striped with snow like soft fur, the frozen river, the flat land. An open, unremarkable landscape. The Director's new partner is walking toward him, carrying a bag with rope handles — a young and very earnest sort of person, the Traveler. The Director smooths his copper mustache and waves. The Traveler's hair sticks up like rooster feathers. He wears a ragged black jacket with a drooping rose pinned to the lapel. His thin nose is crooked, bending a little to the left.
The Traveler climbs up beside the Director. Sighing, he tears a strip of paper from The Israelite, and lines his cracked boot with the headline, "December 29, 1893: More Refugees Fleeing from the East." While the Director relights his pipe, the younger man leafs through a notebook. The notes are in a small, meticulous script that shines as if the ink were made of a green florescence. "So many people hurt and lonely, talents going to waste," the Traveler says, his voice hoarse with sympathy. "But what about this?" He frowns. "There must be a mistake. We can't be expected to waste time on an animal like that." The Traveler stabs the notebook with his finger.
"You have your orders and the fellow is on his way," the Director says, pointing to an approaching cart. The driver is a large man in a fur coat who is whipping his horse till she bleeds while he gnaws on a hunk of salami.
The Traveler shields his eyes with his hands, gazing up the road. "I'd just like to have a choice. Is that too much to ask?"
"It's the price you pay, my boy. You knew that when you came on board." The Director rubs the bowl of his pipe against his velvet vest. "You could resign. But then it's rebirth for you. You interested? I see not. You serious types are all the same." He draws an imaginary bow across an even more imaginary violin that nevertheless plays the opening notes to Tchaikovsky's violin concerto. Tchaikovsky has recently died of cholera. The Traveler looks from his notebook to the absent violin. He is impressed. "It's nothing, my friend," the Director says. "Anyone can do it. Even you."
"What's the trick?" the Traveler asks, looking around for a hidden music box.
"Nothing at all. Just a bit of magic."
"Magic," the Traveler says thoughtfully, studying his notebook again.
"Don't get any ideas. Let me tell you the facts. What's magic? A piece of chocolate. An almond torte. Delicious, and then it melts away. But all of this, the Director says waving his hand grandly, "is something else entirely. Open your eyes and look. Maybe you'll learn a secret or two. But you can't just sit there moping and letting the snow soak through the holes in your boots. No. You've got to look closely and pay attention. Then you'll see where you can give a little nudge and open a door. And who knows," he winks, "what you might find in there? Well, my friend, I can't sit here and talk all day. I have something to deliver in Blaszka. Would you like to join me?"
"No. I'd better wait here. You go on." The Traveler dismounts from the carriage, seating himself on a snowy log.
"Au revoir," the Director says. He picks up the reins and clucks to his fine black horse.
The Traveler pulls up the collar of his jacket as the snow trickles down his neck. "Have to get assigned here in the middle of winter," he grumbles. "Couldn't be Warsaw. Streetcars. Electricity. Unions. Oh, no. It's got to be where people still believe in witchcraft." He shakes his head. "They don't know what's coming to them." Studying his notebook, he taps his chin. "Could be an advantage, though. If you use it right." He looks down the road toward Warsaw, as if he can see the next century riding the train, trailing a line of smoke, the whistle blowing.
Time is a trickster in Poland. In Warsaw they have electric lights. On the farms, peasants make their own candles. And in Blaszka? There, time juggles fire, throwing off sparks that reach far into the past and spin toward the future.
But shh, we can't talk, now. The story is about to start.

Excerpted from The River Midnight by Lillian Nattel. Copyright January 1999 by Lillian Nattel. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

CONTENTS

PROLOGUE Angels and Demons

PART ONE The Women

1 Mushroom Soup

2 Mud and Pearls

3 Miracle Cloaks

4 A Plague of Frogs

PART TWO The Men

5 Golden Eggs

6 The Watercarrier

7 The Dancing Bear

8 A Gift of Fire

PART THREE Misha

9 The Secret River

Author's Note

Glossary

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First Chapter

Time grows short at the end of a century, like winter days when night falls too soon. In the dusk, angels and demons walk. Who knows who they are? Or which is which. But there they are, sneaking their gifts into the crevices of change. Even in a place like Blaszka, less than a dot on the map of Russian-occupied Poland.
Someone might say that so-and-so is an angel or so-and-so a demon. But make no mistake, it's just a question of style. One sympathizes, the other provokes. But their mission is the same, and so is their destination.
It's a cold day, the short Friday of winter, the 20th of Tevet 5654, or you might call it the 29th of December 1893, according to the Christian calendar. Everyone's in a rush, anxious to finish their business before the sun sets. Once darkness falls, the Sabbath rules. Candlelight will have no other purpose than its beauty, and women and men will make love in honor of the Sabbath.
Listen. You can hear the excitement in the village square. "Fresh, hot, only two kopecks." Girls run through the crowd, carrying baskets of rolls, pretzels, pierogies, and herring cut into small rings. The herrings almost speak. Take your pick, the large smelly ones, horse herring, pickled, smoked, or packed in fat. Steam rises from the warm baskets in the winter air. The square smells of vinegar, yeast, and horse dung. Men and women blow into their cold hands to warm them, pinching this and sniffing that, bargaining as if for their souls, undeterred by the crash of a stall that collapses under its mountain of earthenware. This is what keeps Blaszka together, the flimsy stalls piled high with everything, where people lean toward each other, bargaining, touchingwhat they need, shaking it, holding it up to the light.
Hurry, the villagers say, the Sabbath is coming. Everything has to close early today. Am I asking about money? Do I worry about money? I know that you, lady, will give it to me later, that you will pay. Look at this, straight from Plotsk, the best quality. A pity it should lie here, unused. Let me put it into your basket for you. Just a few kopecks. It costs less than air.
Fifty Jewish families and six Polish tenant farmers live in the village. But on market day, every Tuesday and Friday, dozens of Christian peasants, who farm the land along the Pólnocna River, come down to Blaszka. In the village square they bargain and in Perlmutter's tavern, they drink vodka with beer and eat cheese and pickles and hard-boiled eggs.
A Jew can never be a peasant, even if he looks and acts like one, nor a gentleman either. Such categories apply only to Christians in Poland, each of them having a place on the land. But by law the Jews are townspeople. Even if they are farmers, they are townspeople borrowing the land; they have no right to it. Within their towns the Jews can make their own distinctions, so long as they service the people of the land. So in Blaszka, Jews buy the peasants' produce and sell goods from Plotsk. Jews are tinsmiths and blacksmiths and cobblers and tailors and wheelwrights and barrelmakers and butchers and bakers. They speak Yiddish and Polish and a smattering of Russian, on weekdays they bargain and on the Sabbath they rest.
The village square isn't paved. It's marked in one corner by the bridge, in another corner by the tavern, by the synagogue in the third corner, and where the square dips down toward the Pólnocna River, by the house of Misha the midwife. Her house stands on stilts so that the spring floods flow under it, bringing a rich mud that makes the vegetables in her garden grow larger than anywhere else. If you stood on the doorstep of Misha's house, you could see the entire village, the river curling around it, the woods behind the river, the lanes leading out of the village square, the small houses, each with an eating room in front and sleeping rooms behind separated by a halfway where the hens roost in the winter. Across the river, in the new part of Blaszka, you could see the ruins of the mill and the woods overgrowing abandoned houses.
There is a legend about the Pólnonca River. It's said that a saint was martyred in the river's waters at midnight, resulting in the conversion and baptism of the local tribe. Pólnoc in Polish means midnight, and so the river was named. But others argue that pólnoc also means north, the Pólnonca so named because it enters the Vistula River from the north.
The Pólnonca is frozen now, children sliding on its surface. In front of her house, Misha stands beside her stall, her hands on her hips. She's bigger than any man in Blaszka. Her table is crowded with jars and bottles, powders and ointments and liquids for women's troubles, and men's, too. "There's nothing to be afraid of," she says.
All right, the women say, but you'd better watch your behind or the Evil One will send someone to kick it while you're not paying attention.
"Well, let him just try to make some business with me." Misha holds out her hand, beckoning the invisible stranger. She grins, her gold tooth flashing in the thin winter light. "Don't worry," Misha says, "if someone comes from the other side, he'll soon be running out of Blaszka with his tail between his legs. You can be sure of it."

In a small house off the village square, an old woman is teaching the little girls their letters. Tell us about Misha, they beg. We want to hear the story about Misha and Manya again. Please, please. The old woman puts down her pencil. "Well, I knew Misha's mother very well. She was so happy when she had a daughter, but she had one fear. Do you know what that was?" The children shake their heads. "That her daughter would turn out like Manya. You've heard of Manya, haven't you?" Yes, yes, the little girls say, Manya the witch comes in the night to steal away wicked children. "But you're not wicked children, are you?" The girls shake their heads, no, no, no. "Now, listen carefully, children. Before Misha, there was Blema, her mother. Before Blema was Miriam, Misha's grandmother. And before Miriam was?" Who? the children ask. "Manya!" The old woman leans forward, wriggling her clawed fingers at the children until they squeal. "Oh, Manya was bigger than any man, and no one could tame her until they put her to death for casting spells. Blema was afraid that her baby should turn out like Manya, God forbid. So Blema named her baby Miriam after her own mother, who was a good woman. Modest and quiet. Like you girls, yes? But you can't cheat fate, children.
"Blema carried her baby in a shawl on her back when she went to the peasants' cottages. The peasants liked to play with the little one. They called her Marisha, you know that's Polish for Miriam. But the baby couldn't say Marisha or even Miriam. What came out was Misha. The peasants said it must be her true name, and that, since misha means bear in Polish, the girl would grow up to be as dangerous as a mother bear. And because Misha is a man's name among the Russians, she would also be as fierce as a Cossack. This is what came to be. I'm sure you heard your mothers say so. When a woman is in childbirth, even the Angel of Death is afraid of Misha."
In the village square, the watercarrier rushes by Misha's stall, his buckets swinging wildly on their yoke. As his foot knocks against a stone, he stumbles, holding onto her table for balance. And then he's gone toward the bridge.
Across the bridge is what used to be the wealthy part of Blaszka. There among the ruins of abandoned houses, you can see the village well and beside it the bathhouse with its marble columns, built with the miller's money, may he rest in peace. Beside it is the foundation of the new synagogue, never finished.
Inside the bathhouse, the old men sit naked on the benches, sweating in the steam that rises as the attendant pours water over the hot stones. At the end of the room is the sunken bath, the mikva, with its purifying water. Before the men leave, they'll dip in the mikva to make themselves ready for the Sabbath.
Why does the butcher get to sit in the second row of the synagogue so close to the Holy Ark? they complain. He's just a proster, a plain person, like us. A man should know his place. The proster do the work, the baalebatim make the money, and the shayner tell you what to do, either because they're rich enough or they're scholars.
Sure, that's how it is in most places, but you can't expect it here in Blaszka. Who would sit in the second row if not the butcher? In the days before the Russians blew up the mill, we had shayner in Blaszka. Fine people. But now? There's just proster. Anybody who was anybody left Blaszka. And why not? You can walk for two hours down the road and you're in Plotsk. The capital of the gubernia. Twenty-six thousand people. A theater. A Jewish hospital. Schools. Everything.
Tell me, what's a town when there's no fine people driving around in their carriages and telling you what's what? That's the kind of village Blaszka is. We have a rabbi whose greatest friends are unbelievers — I saw him get a letter from France myself — and he can't stand the sight of a lit match, either.
Never mind. It's good to be alive. A little schnapps, a little singing, something nice to eat on Shabbas, it's all right. I'm old, but I'm in no rush to leave. Tell me, if it's so good there in the next world, why doesn't anyone come back to tell us about it?
Outside the bathhouse, a lane leads to the bridge and across the bridge, the road from Blaszka leaves the village square, following the Pólnocna River down to the Vistula where it meets the highway that runs from Plotsk to Warsaw. Here, at the juncture of the Vistula and the Pólnocna Rivers, there is a shiny black carriage with THE GOLEM PLAYERS painted in yellow on the side. The horse snorts, flicking her tail, braided with a yellow ribbon. Crystals of breath have formed around her mouth, and the creature licks them off with her thirsty tongue.
The Director, in his top hat, sits aloft, puffing on his mahogany pipe, horns of smoke curling upward. He looks sideways at the landscape, the bare trees striped with snow like soft fur, the frozen river, the flat land. An open, unremarkable landscape. The Director's new partner is walking toward him, carrying a bag with rope handles — a young and very earnest sort of person, the Traveler. The Director smooths his copper mustache and waves. The Traveler's hair sticks up like rooster feathers. He wears a ragged black jacket with a drooping rose pinned to the lapel. His thin nose is crooked, bending a little to the left.
The Traveler climbs up beside the Director. Sighing, he tears a strip of paper from The Israelite, and lines his cracked boot with the headline, "December 29, 1893: More Refugees Fleeing from the East." While the Director relights his pipe, the younger man leafs through a notebook. The notes are in a small, meticulous script that shines as if the ink were made of a green florescence. "So many people hurt and lonely, talents going to waste," the Traveler says, his voice hoarse with sympathy. "But what about this?" He frowns. "There must be a mistake. We can't be expected to waste time on an animal like that." The Traveler stabs the notebook with his finger.
"You have your orders and the fellow is on his way," the Director says, pointing to an approaching cart. The driver is a large man in a fur coat who is whipping his horse till she bleeds while he gnaws on a hunk of salami.
The Traveler shields his eyes with his hands, gazing up the road. "I'd just like to have a choice. Is that too much to ask?"
"It's the price you pay, my boy. You knew that when you came on board." The Director rubs the bowl of his pipe against his velvet vest. "You could resign. But then it's rebirth for you. You interested? I see not. You serious types are all the same." He draws an imaginary bow across an even more imaginary violin that nevertheless plays the opening notes to Tchaikovsky's violin concerto. Tchaikovsky has recently died of cholera. The Traveler looks from his notebook to the absent violin. He is impressed. "It's nothing, my friend," the Director says. "Anyone can do it. Even you."
"What's the trick?" the Traveler asks, looking around for a hidden music box.
"Nothing at all. Just a bit of magic."
"Magic," the Traveler says thoughtfully, studying his notebook again.
"Don't get any ideas. Let me tell you the facts. What's magic? A piece of chocolate. An almond torte. Delicious, and then it melts away. But all of this, the Director says waving his hand grandly, "is something else entirely. Open your eyes and look. Maybe you'll learn a secret or two. But you can't just sit there moping and letting the snow soak through the holes in your boots. No. You've got to look closely and pay attention. Then you'll see where you can give a little nudge and open a door. And who knows," he winks, "what you might find in there? Well, my friend, I can't sit here and talk all day. I have something to deliver in Blaszka. Would you like to join me?"
"No. I'd better wait here. You go on." The Traveler dismounts from the carriage, seating himself on a snowy log.
"Au revoir," the Director says. He picks up the reins and clucks to his fine black horse.
The Traveler pulls up the collar of his jacket as the snow trickles down his neck. "Have to get assigned here in the middle of winter," he grumbles. "Couldn't be Warsaw. Streetcars. Electricity. Unions. Oh, no. It's got to be where people still believe in witchcraft." He shakes his head. "They don't know what's coming to them." Studying his notebook, he taps his chin. "Could be an advantage, though. If you use it right." He looks down the road toward Warsaw, as if he can see the next century riding the train, trailing a line of smoke, the whistle blowing.
Time is a trickster in Poland. In Warsaw they have electric lights. On the farms, peasants make their own candles. And in Blaszka? There, time juggles fire, throwing off sparks that reach far into the past and spin toward the future.
But shh, we can't talk, now. The story is about to start.

Excerpted from The River Midnight by Lillian Nattel. Copyright January 1999 by Lillian Nattel. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Preface

Prologue: Angels and Demons

Time grows short at the end of a century, like winter days when night falls too soon. In the dusk, angels and demons walk. Who knows who they are? Or which is which. But there they are, sneaking their gifts into the crevices of change. Even in a place like Blaszka, less than a dot on the map of Russian-occupied Poland.

Someone might say that so-and-so is an angel or so-and-so a demon. But make no mistake, it's just a question of style. One sympathizes, the other provokes. But their mission is the same, and so is their destination.

It's a cold day, the short Friday of winter, the 20th of Tevet 5654, or you might call it the 29th of December 1893, according to the Christian calendar. Everyone's in a rush, anxious to finish their business before the sun sets. Once darkness falls, the Sabbath rules. Candlelight will have no other purpose than its beauty, and women and men will make love in honor of the Sabbath.

Listen. You can hear the excitement in the village square. "Fresh, hot, only two kopecks." Girls run through the crowd, carrying baskets of rolls, pretzels, pierogies, and herring cut into small rings. The herrings almost speak. Take your pick, the large smelly ones, horse herring, pickled, smoked, or packed in fat. Steam rises from the warm baskets in the winter air. The square smells of vinegar, yeast, and horse dung. Men and women blow into their cold hands to warm them, pinching this and sniffing that, bargaining as if for their souls, undeterred by the crash of a stall that collapses under its mountain of earthenware. This is what keeps Blaszka together, the flimsy stalls piled high with everything, where people lean toward each other, bargaining, touching what they need, shaking it, holding it up to the light.

Hurry, the villagers say, the Sabbath is coming. Everything has to close early today. Am I asking about money? Do I worry about money? I know that you, lady, will give it to me later, that you will pay. Look at this, straight from Plotsk, the best quality. A pity it should lie here, unused. Let me put it into your basket for you. Just a few kopecks. It costs less than air.

Fifty Jewish families and six Polish tenant farmers live in the village. But on market day, every Tuesday and Friday, dozens of Christian peasants, who farm the land along the Pólnocna River, come down to Blaszka. In the village square they bargain and in Perlmutter's tavern, they drink vodka with beer and eat cheese and pickles and hard-boiled eggs.

A Jew can never be a peasant, even if he looks and acts like one, nor a gentleman either. Such categories apply only to Christians in Poland, each of them having a place on the land. But by law the Jews are townspeople. Even if they are farmers, they are townspeople borrowing the land; they have no right to it. Within their towns the Jews can make their own distinctions, so long as they service the people of the land. So in Blaszka, Jews buy the peasants' produce and sell goods from Plotsk. Jews are tinsmiths and blacksmiths and cobblers and tailors and wheelwrights and barrelmakers and butchers and bakers. They speak Yiddish and Polish and a smattering of Russian, on weekdays they bargain and on the Sabbath they rest.

The village square isn't paved. It's marked in one corner by the bridge, in another corner by the tavern, by the synagogue in the third corner, and where the square dips down toward the Pólnocna River, by the house of Misha the midwife. Her house stands on stilts so that the spring floods flow under it, bringing a rich mud that makes the vegetables in her garden grow larger than anywhere else. If you stood on the doorstep of Misha's house, you could see the entire village, the river curling around it, the woods behind the river, the lanes leading out of the village square, the small houses, each with an eating room in front and sleeping rooms behind separated by a halfway where the hens roost in the winter. Across the river, in the new part of Blaszka, you could see the ruins of the mill and the woods overgrowing abandoned houses.

There is a legend about the Pólnonca River. It's said that a saint was martyred in the river's waters at midnight, resulting in the conversion and baptism of the local tribe. Pólnoc in Polish means midnight, and so the river was named. But others argue that pólnoc also means north, the Pólnonca so named because it enters the Vistula River from the north.

The Pólnonca is frozen now, children sliding on its surface. In front of her house, Misha stands beside her stall, her hands on her hips. She's bigger than any man in Blaszka. Her table is crowded with jars and bottles, powders and ointments and liquids for women's troubles, and men's, too. "There's nothing to be afraid of," she says.

All right, the women say, but you'd better watch your behind or the Evil One will send someone to kick it while you're not paying attention.

"Well, let him just try to make some business with me." Misha holds out her hand, beckoning the invisible stranger. She grins, her gold tooth flashing in the thin winter light. "Don't worry," Misha says, "if someone comes from the other side, he'll soon be running out of Blaszka with his tail between his legs. You can be sure of it."


In a small house off the village square, an old woman is teaching the little girls their letters. Tell us about Misha, they beg. We want to hear the story about Misha and Manya again. Please, please. The old woman puts down her pencil. "Well, I knew Misha's mother very well. She was so happy when she had a daughter, but she had one fear. Do you know what that was?" The children shake their heads. "That her daughter would turn out like Manya. You've heard of Manya, haven't you?" Yes, yes, the little girls say, Manya the witch comes in the night to steal away wicked children. "But you're not wicked children, are you?" The girls shake their heads, no, no, no. "Now, listen carefully, children. Before Misha, there was Blema, her mother. Before Blema was Miriam, Misha's grandmother. And before Miriam was?" Who? the children ask. "Manya!" The old woman leans forward, wriggling her clawed fingers at the children until they squeal. "Oh, Manya was bigger than any man, and no one could tame her until they put her to death for casting spells. Blema was afraid that her baby should turn out like Manya, God forbid. So Blema named her baby Miriam after her own mother, who was a good woman. Modest and quiet. Like you girls, yes? But you can't cheat fate, children.

"Blema carried her baby in a shawl on her back when she went to the peasants' cottages. The peasants liked to play with the little one. They called her Marisha, you know that's Polish for Miriam. But the baby couldn't say Marisha or even Miriam. What came out was Misha. The peasants said it must be her true name, and that, since misha means bear in Polish, the girl would grow up to be as dangerous as a mother bear. And because Misha is a man's name among the Russians, she would also be as fierce as a Cossack. This is what came to be. I'm sure you heard your mothers say so. When a woman is in childbirth, even the Angel of Death is afraid of Misha."

In the village square, the watercarrier rushes by Misha's stall, his buckets swinging wildly on their yoke. As his foot knocks against a stone, he stumbles, holding onto her table for balance. And then he's gone toward the bridge.

Across the bridge is what used to be the wealthy part of Blaszka. There among the ruins of abandoned houses, you can see the village well and beside it the bathhouse with its marble columns, built with the miller's money, may he rest in peace. Beside it is the foundation of the new synagogue, never finished.

Inside the bathhouse, the old men sit naked on the benches, sweating in the steam that rises as the attendant pours water over the hot stones. At the end of the room is the sunken bath, the mikva, with its purifying water. Before the men leave, they'll dip in the mikva to make themselves ready for the Sabbath.

Why does the butcher get to sit in the second row of the synagogue so close to the Holy Ark? they complain. He's just a proster, a plain person, like us. A man should know his place. The proster do the work, the baalebatim make the money, and the shayner tell you what to do, either because they're rich enough or they're scholars.

Sure, that's how it is in most places, but you can't expect it here in Blaszka. Who would sit in the second row if not the butcher? In the days before the Russians blew up the mill, we had shayner in Blaszka. Fine people. But now? There's just proster. Anybody who was anybody left Blaszka. And why not? You can walk for two hours down the road and you're in Plotsk. The capital of the gubernia. Twenty-six thousand people. A theater. A Jewish hospital. Schools. Everything.

Tell me, what's a town when there's no fine people driving around in their carriages and telling you what's what? That's the kind of village Blaszka is. We have a rabbi whose greatest friends are unbelievers -- I saw him get a letter from France myself -- and he can't stand the sight of a lit match, either.

Never mind. It's good to be alive. A little schnapps, a little singing, something nice to eat on Shabbas, it's all right. I'm old, but I'm in no rush to leave. Tell me, if it's so good there in the next world, why doesn't anyone come back to tell us about it?

Outside the bathhouse, a lane leads to the bridge and across the bridge, the road from Blaszka leaves the village square, following the Pólnocna River down to the Vistula where it meets the highway that runs from Plotsk to Warsaw. Here, at the juncture of the Vistula and the Pólnocna Rivers, there is a shiny black carriage with THE GOLEM PLAYERS painted in yellow on the side. The horse snorts, flicking her tail, braided with a yellow ribbon. Crystals of breath have formed around her mouth, and the creature licks them off with her thirsty tongue.

The Director, in his top hat, sits aloft, puffing on his mahogany pipe, horns of smoke curling upward. He looks sideways at the landscape, the bare trees striped with snow like soft fur, the frozen river, the flat land. An open, unremarkable landscape. The Director's new partner is walking toward him, carrying a bag with rope handles -- a young and very earnest sort of person, the Traveler. The Director smooths his copper mustache and waves. The Traveler's hair sticks up like rooster feathers. He wears a ragged black jacket with a drooping rose pinned to the lapel. His thin nose is crooked, bending a little to the left.

The Traveler climbs up beside the Director. Sighing, he tears a strip of paper from The Israelite, and lines his cracked boot with the headline, "December 29, 1893: More Refugees Fleeing from the East." While the Director relights his pipe, the younger man leafs through a notebook. The notes are in a small, meticulous script that shines as if the ink were made of a green florescence. "So many people hurt and lonely, talents going to waste," the Traveler says, his voice hoarse with sympathy. "But what about this?" He frowns. "There must be a mistake. We can't be expected to waste time on an animal like that." The Traveler stabs the notebook with his finger.

"You have your orders and the fellow is on his way," the Director says, pointing to an approaching cart. The driver is a large man in a fur coat who is whipping his horse till she bleeds while he gnaws on a hunk of salami.

The Traveler shields his eyes with his hands, gazing up the road. "I'd just like to have a choice. Is that too much to ask?"

"It's the price you pay, my boy. You knew that when you came on board." The Director rubs the bowl of his pipe against his velvet vest. "You could resign. But then it's rebirth for you. You interested? I see not. You serious types are all the same." He draws an imaginary bow across an even more imaginary violin that nevertheless plays the opening notes to Tchaikovsky's violin concerto. Tchaikovsky has recently died of cholera. The Traveler looks from his notebook to the absent violin. He is impressed. "It's nothing, my friend," the Director says. "Anyone can do it. Even you."

"What's the trick?" the Traveler asks, looking around for a hidden music box.

"Nothing at all. Just a bit of magic."

"Magic," the Traveler says thoughtfully, studying his notebook again.

"Don't get any ideas. Let me tell you the facts. What's magic? A piece of chocolate. An almond torte. Delicious, and then it melts away. But all of this, the Director says waving his hand grandly, "is something else entirely. Open your eyes and look. Maybe you'll learn a secret or two. But you can't just sit there moping and letting the snow soak through the holes in your boots. No. You've got to look closely and pay attention. Then you'll see where you can give a little nudge and open a door. And who knows," he winks, "what you might find in there? Well, my friend, I can't sit here and talk all day. I have something to deliver in Blaszka. Would you like to join me?"

"No. I'd better wait here. You go on." The Traveler dismounts from the carriage, seating himself on a snowy log.

"Au revoir," the Director says. He picks up the reins and clucks to his fine black horse.

The Traveler pulls up the collar of his jacket as the snow trickles down his neck. "Have to get assigned here in the middle of winter," he grumbles. "Couldn't be Warsaw. Streetcars. Electricity. Unions. Oh, no. It's got to be where people still believe in witchcraft." He shakes his head. "They don't know what's coming to them." Studying his notebook, he taps his chin. "Could be an advantage, though. If you use it right." He looks down the road toward Warsaw, as if he can see the next century riding the train, trailing a line of smoke, the whistle blowing.

Time is a trickster in Poland. In Warsaw they have electric lights. On the farms, peasants make their own candles. And in Blaszka? There, time juggles fire, throwing off sparks that reach far into the past and spin toward the future.

But shh, we can't talk, now. The story is about to start.

Copyright © 1999 by Moonlily Manuscripts Inc.

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Introduction

Prologue: Angels and Demons Time grows short at the end of a century, like winter days when night falls too soon. In the dusk, angels and demons walk. Who knows who they are? Or which is which. But there they are, sneaking their gifts into the crevices of change. Even in a place like Blaszka, less than a dot on the map of Russian-occupied Poland.

Someone might say that so-and-so is an angel or so-and-so a demon. But make no mistake, it's just a question of style. One sympathizes, the other provokes. But their mission is the same, and so is their destination.

It's a cold day, the short Friday of winter, the 20th of Tevet 5654, or you might call it the 29th of December 1893, according to the Christian calendar. Everyone's in a rush, anxious to finish their business before the sun sets. Once darkness falls, the Sabbath rules. Candlelight will have no other purpose than its beauty, and women and men will make love in honor of the Sabbath.

Listen. You can hear the excitement in the village square. "Fresh, hot, only two kopecks." Girls run through the crowd, carrying baskets of rolls, pretzels, pierogies, and herring cut into small rings. The herrings almost speak. Take your pick, the large smelly ones, horse herring, pickled, smoked, or packed in fat. Steam rises from the warm baskets in the winter air. The square smells of vinegar, yeast, and horse dung. Men and women blow into their cold hands to warm them, pinching this and sniffing that, bargaining as if for their souls, undeterred by the crash of a stall that collapses under its mountain of earthenware. This is what keeps Blaszka together, the flimsy stalls piled high with everything, where people lean toward each other, bargaining, touching what they need, shaking it, holding it up to the light.

Hurry, the villagers say, the Sabbath is coming. Everything has to close early today. Am I asking about money? Do I worry about money? I know that you, lady, will give it to me later, that you will pay. Look at this, straight from Plotsk, the best quality. A pity it should lie here, unused. Let me put it into your basket for you. Just a few kopecks. It costs less than air.

Fifty Jewish families and six Polish tenant farmers live in the village. But on market day, every Tuesday and Friday, dozens of Christian peasants, who farm the land along the Pólnocna River, come down to Blaszka. In the village square they bargain and in Perlmutter's tavern, they drink vodka with beer and eat cheese and pickles and hard-boiled eggs.

A Jew can never be a peasant, even if he looks and acts like one, nor a gentleman either. Such categories apply only to Christians in Poland, each of them having a place on the land. But by law the Jews are townspeople. Even if they are farmers, they are townspeople borrowing the land; they have no right to it. Within their towns the Jews can make their own distinctions, so long as they service the people of the land. So in Blaszka, Jews buy the peasants' produce and sell goods from Plotsk. Jews are tinsmiths and blacksmiths and cobblers and tailors and wheelwrights and barrelmakers and butchers and bakers. They speak Yiddish and Polish and a smattering of Russian, on weekdays they bargain and on the Sabbath they rest.

The village square isn't paved. It's marked in one corner by the bridge, in another corner by the tavern, by the synagogue in the third corner, and where the square dips down toward the Pólnocna River, by the house of Misha the midwife. Her house stands on stilts so that the spring floods flow under it, bringing a rich mud that makes the vegetables in her garden grow larger than anywhere else. If you stood on the doorstep of Misha's house, you could see the entire village, the river curling around it, the woods behind the river, the lanes leading out of the village square, the small houses, each with an eating room in front and sleeping rooms behind separated by a halfway where the hens roost in the winter. Across the river, in the new part of Blaszka, you could see the ruins of the mill and the woods overgrowing abandoned houses.

There is a legend about the Pólnonca River. It's said that a saint was martyred in the river's waters at midnight, resulting in the conversion and baptism of the local tribe. Pólnoc in Polish means midnight, and so the river was named. But others argue that pólnoc also means north, the Pólnonca so named because it enters the Vistula River from the north.

The Pólnonca is frozen now, children sliding on its surface. In front of her house, Misha stands beside her stall, her hands on her hips. She's bigger than any man in Blaszka. Her table is crowded with jars and bottles, powders and ointments and liquids for women's troubles, and men's, too. "There's nothing to be afraid of," she says.

All right, the women say, but you'd better watch your behind or the Evil One will send someone to kick it while you're not paying attention.

"Well, let him just try to make some business with me." Misha holds out her hand, beckoning the invisible stranger. She grins, her gold tooth flashing in the thin winter light. "Don't worry," Misha says, "if someone comes from the other side, he'll soon be running out of Blaszka with his tail between his legs. You can be sure of it."


In a small house off the village square, an old woman is teaching the little girls their letters. Tell us about Misha, they beg. We want to hear the story about Misha and Manya again. Please, please. The old woman puts down her pencil. "Well, I knew Misha's mother very well. She was so happy when she had a daughter, but she had one fear. Do you know what that was?" The children shake their heads. "That her daughter would turn out like Manya. You've heard of Manya, haven't you?" Yes, yes, the little girls say, Manya the witch comes in the night to steal away wicked children. "But you're not wicked children, are you?" The girls shake their heads, no, no, no. "Now, listen carefully, children. Before Misha, there was Blema, her mother. Before Blema was Miriam, Misha's grandmother. And before Miriam was?" Who? the children ask. "Manya!" The old woman leans forward, wriggling her clawed fingers at the children until they squeal. "Oh, Manya was bigger than any man, and no one could tame her until they put her to death for casting spells. Blema was afraid that her baby should turn out like Manya, God forbid. So Blema named her baby Miriam after her own mother, who was a good woman. Modest and quiet. Like you girls, yes? But you can't cheat fate, children.

"Blema carried her baby in a shawl on her back when she went to the peasants' cottages. The peasants liked to play with the little one. They called her Marisha, you know that's Polish for Miriam. But the baby couldn't say Marisha or even Miriam. What came out was Misha. The peasants said it must be her true name, and that, since misha means bear in Polish, the girl would grow up to be as dangerous as a mother bear. And because Misha is a man's name among the Russians, she would also be as fierce as a Cossack. This is what came to be. I'm sure you heard your mothers say so. When a woman is in childbirth, even the Angel of Death is afraid of Misha."

In the village square, the watercarrier rushes by Misha's stall, his buckets swinging wildly on their yoke. As his foot knocks against a stone, he stumbles, holding onto her table for balance. And then he's gone toward the bridge.

Across the bridge is what used to be the wealthy part of Blaszka. There among the ruins of abandoned houses, you can see the village well and beside it the bathhouse with its marble columns, built with the miller's money, may he rest in peace. Beside it is the foundation of the new synagogue, never finished.

Inside the bathhouse, the old men sit naked on the benches, sweating in the steam that rises as the attendant pours water over the hot stones. At the end of the room is the sunken bath, the mikva, with its purifying water. Before the men leave, they'll dip in the mikva to make themselves ready for the Sabbath.

Why does the butcher get to sit in the second row of the synagogue so close to the Holy Ark? they complain. He's just a proster, a plain person, like us. A man should know his place. The proster do the work, the baalebatim make the money, and the shayner tell you what to do, either because they're rich enough or they're scholars.

Sure, that's how it is in most places, but you can't expect it here in Blaszka. Who would sit in the second row if not the butcher? In the days before the Russians blew up the mill, we had shayner in Blaszka. Fine people. But now? There's just proster. Anybody who was anybody left Blaszka. And why not? You can walk for two hours down the road and you're in Plotsk. The capital of the gubernia. Twenty-six thousand people. A theater. A Jewish hospital. Schools. Everything.

Tell me, what's a town when there's no fine people driving around in their carriages and telling you what's what? That's the kind of village Blaszka is. We have a rabbi whose greatest friends are unbelievers -- I saw him get a letter from France myself -- and he can't stand the sight of a lit match, either.

Never mind. It's good to be alive. A little schnapps, a little singing, something nice to eat on Shabbas, it's all right. I'm old, but I'm in no rush to leave. Tell me, if it's so good there in the next world, why doesn't anyone come back to tell us about it?

Outside the bathhouse, a lane leads to the bridge and across the bridge, the road from Blaszka leaves the village square, following the Pólnocna River down to the Vistula where it meets the highway that runs from Plotsk to Warsaw. Here, at the juncture of the Vistula and the Pólnocna Rivers, there is a shiny black carriage with THE GOLEM PLAYERS painted in yellow on the side. The horse snorts, flicking her tail, braided with a yellow ribbon. Crystals of breath have formed around her mouth, and the creature licks them off with her thirsty tongue.

The Director, in his top hat, sits aloft, puffing on his mahogany pipe, horns of smoke curling upward. He looks sideways at the landscape, the bare trees striped with snow like soft fur, the frozen river, the flat land. An open, unremarkable landscape. The Director's new partner is walking toward him, carrying a bag with rope handles -- a young and very earnest sort of person, the Traveler. The Director smooths his copper mustache and waves. The Traveler's hair sticks up like rooster feathers. He wears a ragged black jacket with a drooping rose pinned to the lapel. His thin nose is crooked, bending a little to the left.

The Traveler climbs up beside the Director. Sighing, he tears a strip of paper from The Israelite, and lines his cracked boot with the headline, "December 29, 1893: More Refugees Fleeing from the East." While the Director relights his pipe, the younger man leafs through a notebook. The notes are in a small, meticulous script that shines as if the ink were made of a green florescence. "So many people hurt and lonely, talents going to waste," the Traveler says, his voice hoarse with sympathy. "But what about this?" He frowns. "There must be a mistake. We can't be expected to waste time on an animal like that." The Traveler stabs the notebook with his finger.

"You have your orders and the fellow is on his way," the Director says, pointing to an approaching cart. The driver is a large man in a fur coat who is whipping his horse till she bleeds while he gnaws on a hunk of salami.

The Traveler shields his eyes with his hands, gazing up the road. "I'd just like to have a choice. Is that too much to ask?"

"It's the price you pay, my boy. You knew that when you came on board." The Director rubs the bowl of his pipe against his velvet vest. "You could resign. But then it's rebirth for you. You interested? I see not. You serious types are all the same." He draws an imaginary bow across an even more imaginary violin that nevertheless plays the opening notes to Tchaikovsky's violin concerto. Tchaikovsky has recently died of cholera. The Traveler looks from his notebook to the absent violin. He is impressed. "It's nothing, my friend," the Director says. "Anyone can do it. Even you."

"What's the trick?" the Traveler asks, looking around for a hidden music box.

"Nothing at all. Just a bit of magic."

"Magic," the Traveler says thoughtfully, studying his notebook again.

"Don't get any ideas. Let me tell you the facts. What's magic? A piece of chocolate. An almond torte. Delicious, and then it melts away. But all of this, the Director says waving his hand grandly, "is something else entirely. Open your eyes and look. Maybe you'll learn a secret or two. But you can't just sit there moping and letting the snow soak through the holes in your boots. No. You've got to look closely and pay attention. Then you'll see where you can give a little nudge and open a door. And who knows," he winks, "what you might find in there? Well, my friend, I can't sit here and talk all day. I have something to deliver in Blaszka. Would you like to join me?"

"No. I'd better wait here. You go on." The Traveler dismounts from the carriage, seating himself on a snowy log.

"Au revoir," the Director says. He picks up the reins and clucks to his fine black horse.

The Traveler pulls up the collar of his jacket as the snow trickles down his neck. "Have to get assigned here in the middle of winter," he grumbles. "Couldn't be Warsaw. Streetcars. Electricity. Unions. Oh, no. It's got to be where people still believe in witchcraft." He shakes his head. "They don't know what's coming to them." Studying his notebook, he taps his chin. "Could be an advantage, though. If you use it right." He looks down the road toward Warsaw, as if he can see the next century riding the train, trailing a line of smoke, the whistle blowing.

Time is a trickster in Poland. In Warsaw they have electric lights. On the farms, peasants make their own candles. And in Blaszka? There, time juggles fire, throwing off sparks that reach far into the past and spin toward the future.

But shh, we can't talk, now. The story is about to start.

Copyright © 1999 by Moonlily Manuscripts Inc.

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Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

  1. Who is the strongest woman in Blaszka? Is it Misha, for her stubborn will and power to heal, or Faygela, for her ability to write and get stronger with each baby she bears? Is it Hannah-Leah or Alta-Fruma? Or are these two women too diverse in character and temperament to compare? If it were possible, which of these women would you like to befriend, and why?
  2. The author structured this novel in an interesting way, recalling the same events over and over, each time from a different character's perspective. How did each "version" differ from the others? Did you find any one character's point of view more believable than another? Discuss why the author may have chosen this "full-circle" way of constructing her book.
  3. A major turning point for Hannah-Leah is the night she eats all of the strawberries she picked, wades into the river, and throws Misha's potions away. p. 53 Identify and discuss turning points experienced by other characters in The River Midnight. How do their personal revelations affect the way they feel about themselves, and how are they perceived by others in the village?
  4. The death of Faygela's father made it impossible for her to continue her education in Warsaw. Do you think she would have had the courage to leave if she'd been given the opportunity? If she had gone away to school, would she have returned one day or made her life elsewhere? Discuss the significance behind Faygela's visions of her dead father.
  5. Discuss the notions of religion and tradition as portrayed in The River Midnight. What do the people of Blaszka get out of following their strict religion with its rules, songs, dances, and prayers? Do you think they spend so much time following these traditions that they don't have time to question them? Compare the rituals of Judaism to Misha's rituals of midwifery. Which ones help the people of Blaszka more? Which ones give them the most comfort, and why?
  6. When Izzie tells his sister Emma that they, like all men and women, must distance themselves from each other, he compares them to "milk and meat," which must always be kept apart. Discuss the different ways in which the men and women of Blaszka are divided from each other. In this community, are the women the sweet and comforting "milk," or the strong and substantial "meat"?
  7. Emma's story is presented in a typhus-induced haze. Discuss why the author chose to tell her story that way. Does her dreamy state reflect the way she feels, as she recalls the horror of her parents' death? Does she feel guilty that she survived America and they did not? Do the radical notions Emma brings from New York ill-prepare her for life in Blaszka? Or do they equip her to bring to the village the modern ideas it will need to survive in the next century? Will Emma ever really find her place in Blaszka or has she seen too much of the world to ever be satisfied there?
  8. Do you agree with the statement that "restraint is as much of a sign of the Holy as is courage." p. 450 If this is true, then is it possible to argue that Yarush, who exhibits courage through his aggression, is as holy as Berekh, who shows restraint through his pragmatism? Although it seems clear that Berekh is a kinder and better man than Yarush, do these men share any traits? Which characters in The River Midnight exhibit restraint and which ones show courage?
  9. Most of the women in the village are far more interested in stories about spirits and demons than they are with Shomer's stories of royalty and heiresses. Why do you think this is so? Discuss this novel's many mystical elements: the angels and potions, the Traveler and Director, and the stories of the Demon Lilith and Manya. What impact does the belief in the supernatural have on the characters' lives? Are they frightened by it? Comforted? Fascinated?
  10. Alta-Fruma was once in love with Adam Hoffmann. Yet on their last visit, she notices flaws she never saw before: his hands are clammy; and his mildness — once appealing, now seems meek and unbecoming. Do you think Adam changed, or did Alta-Fruma simply overlook his flaws in the past because she needed him in her life? If so, why doesn't she need him anymore? Does anyone else in this novel have a similar revelation, seeing someone they thought they knew for what they really are?
  11. Most of the older characters in this book will live out their lives in the shtetl, relatively unaffected by the passing of time. But the younger generation's last years will be marked by the horrors of the Holocaust. Discuss how your knowledge of the dark history that looms ahead affected or did not affect the way you perceived this book and its characters.
  12. Sweet and impressionable Ruthie seems in desperate need of finding a strong female role model. In the end, who do you think she admires the most: Misha, Emma, or her mother, Faygela? Who do you think will ultimately have the greatest impact on her life, how she lives it, and who she becomes? What effect does Ruthie's arrest and imprisonment have on her relationship with her mother and how they talk to one another?
  13. Compare Misha's relationship with Hayim, the water carrier, with her relationship with Berekh. What does Berekh give her that Hayim cannot? Do you think Misha's marriage to Hayim was doomed from the start? Why is Misha the only person Hayim cannot draw?
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 11, 2010

    One of my favorites!

    I have read this book over and over and love the way the author handles the story from the different characters' points of view. I fell in love with all of them, and their life in the village. For a first novel it shows a remarkable understanding of human nature, the heart and spirit. I highly recommend it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2001

    Roots tell us so much of who we are

    This is one glorious book. Sweeping, poetic, tender, thoughtful, evocative, uplifting and joyous. Don't read this unless you want to fall in love with your grandparents--all over again.

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