The Signal Flameby Andrew Krivak
In a small town in Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains Hannah and her son Bo mourn the loss of the family patriarch, Jozef Vinich. They were three generations under one
The stunning second novel from National Book Award finalist Andrew Krivak—a heartbreaking, captivating story about a family awaiting the return of their youngest son from the Vietnam War.
In a small town in Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains Hannah and her son Bo mourn the loss of the family patriarch, Jozef Vinich. They were three generations under one roof. Three generations, but only one branch of a scraggy tree; they are a war-haunted family in a war-torn century. Having survived the trenches of World War I as an Austro-Hungarian conscript, Vinich journeyed to America and built a life for his family. His daughter married the Hungarian-born Bexhet Konar, who enlisted to fight with the Americans in the Second World War but brought disgrace on the family when he was imprisoned for desertion. He returned home to Pennsylvania a hollow man, only to be killed in a hunting accident on the family’s land. Finally, in 1971, Hannah’s prodigal younger son, Sam, was reported MIA in Vietnam.
And so there is only Bo, a quiet man full of conviction, a proud work ethic, and a firstborn’s sense of duty. He is left to grieve but also to hope for reunion, to create a new life, to embrace the land and work its soil through the seasons. The Signal Flame is a stirring novel about generations of men and women and the events that define them, brothers who take different paths, the old European values yielding to new world ways, and the convalescence of memory and war.
Beginning shortly after Easter in 1972 and ending on Christmas Eve this ambitious novel beautifully evokes ordinary time, a period of living and working while waiting and watching and expecting. The Signal Flame is gorgeously written, honoring the cycles of earth and body, humming with blood and passion, and it confirms Andrew Krivak as a writer of extraordinary vision and power.
National Book Award–finalist Krivák continues in the tradition of his debut (The Sojourn) with this bleak but breathtaking second novel. The book opens with the death of the family patriarch, Jozef Vinich, who leaves his sprawling farm in Pennsylvania’s rural Endless Mountains to his daughter, Hannah, and oldest grandson, Bo. While Bo runs the roughing mill, Hannah tends the chickens, and the two await the return of Bo’s brother, Sam, who is reported MIA in Vietnam. Told in three parts stretching from Easter to Christmas Eve 1972, the narrative soon picks up steam with the addition of Ruth, Sam’s pregnant fiancée, and the daughter of the man responsible for killing Hannah’s husband in a hunting mishap. By the third section, more backstory has been revealed—Ruth’s ancestors’ ties to Vinich’s land, Sam’s reasons for enlisting, Hannah’s long-held grudge against Ruth’s father—adding texture and depth to the family’s already rich history. Devastating accidents befall these characters and the heartache they endure is palpable. But there’s love, too. This family saga is quiet at its core, but it’s Krivák’s gorgeous prose and deep grasp of the relationship between longing and loss that make the book such a stunner. (Jan.)
—Richard Russo, author of Empire Falls
There are many pleasures to be found in The Signal Flame: The intimacy and love with which Krivak writes about his postage stamp of rural Pennsylvania. His keen sense of time and place, the woods and forests and hills of the Endless Mountains. Page by page the book itself feels like an outgrowth of the soil in in which it is steeped.
—Brad Kessler, author of Birds in Fall
“Andrew Krivák gives us characters and a community that could have come out of The Deer Hunter—men and women challenged by natural and human-made disasters, love and simmering hate. While these small town people confront life’s big questions, the true north of the novel is in the day-to-day, the ordinary, where Krivák has found the extraordinary. A well-crafted novel, elegantly told, The Signal Flame is a testament to Krivák's singular talent.”
—Jesmyn Ward, author of Salvage the Bones and Men We Reaped
"This is a novel of tremendous sorrow and tremendous beauty. Of love shaped by war, and of how the past haunts the present, and shapes the future. An incandescent work."
—Marlon James, author of A Brief History of Seven Killings
“The language in this beautiful book is as textured and rich—as quiet and grand and unforgettable—as its setting: a small Pennsylvania town tucked in the mountains. It isn't often that a story finds me making comparisons to literary greats from the first page. This is one of those books. In the end, what Krivák does is something all his own, and it is a triumph.”
—Maaza Mengiste, author of Beneath the Lion's Gaze
In his debut novel, Sojourn, Krivák introduced Jozef Vinich, a young soldier coming of age in the trenches of World War I. Here, the story begins in the early 1970s with Vinich's death in the small Pennsylvania mountain town where he built both a career and family. His grandson, Bo, is left behind to care for his widowed mother and tend to his grandfather's mill and property. Along with the land, Bo also inherits the generational feud between his family and the Youngers that ultimately led to the death of his father. It's a dispute recently complicated by his brother, who is now missing in action in Vietnam, impregnating Ruth Younger, the daughter of his father's killer. Though buckling under the weight of grief and family expectations, Bo ultimately finds reconciliation and closure through the darkest of family tragedies. VERDICT With studied language and a strong sense of place, Krivák elucidates how family structures and narratives fractured, maintained, and evolved between World War I and the Vietnam War. [See Prepub Alert, 8/1/16.]—Joshua Finnell, Los Alamos National Lab., NM
Krivák (The Sojourn, 2011, etc.) returns to home ground in this elegiac story of rural life in a time of turmoil.If this were Turgenev, Krivák's characters would be peasants, sturdy caretakers of the soil with a sure awareness that life is hard and fleeting. As it is, the Vinich clan, descended of a Slovak immigrant who saw all he cared to of war in the trenches of Galicia, is a salt-of-the-earth breed, unassuming and mostly steady, even a little wealthy "in a town where land meant wealth." Bo, perhaps the steadiest of them all, goes off to college to read the Greeks and learn a little about the world beyond their narrow valley in the Endless Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania; he returns home to take his place among the sawyers and farmers, even as the patriarch slides toward death and his brother, Sam, ships off to Vietnam, there to be lost—missing in action, the official forms say. Krivák's modest story finds Bo trying to do the right thing by all concerned while living up to some of his book-learned ideals; called on to act heroically, he does so while otherwise serving as the guardian of a fragile mother, the preserver of family memory, and, indeed, the beacon to guide his brother home. In one of the book's most affecting moments, he travels to West Virginia to meet a member of Sam's unit, who evokes the terror of Vietnam: "You want to talk about ghosts? Fucking VC….Not a sound in that jungle except the sticks we broke on the ground and our boots when we pulled them out of the mud." Should they erect a tombstone? Like Michael Cimino's Deer Hunter, set in a neighboring country and addressing some of the same themes, this is a story about love and loyalty, with moments of sudden violence and great beauty. A simple story, on its face, but full of resounding depths: a dark commemoration of a dark time but offering the slim hope that things will get better.
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- 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)
Meet the Author
Andrew Krivák is the author of The Signal Flame and the National Book Award finalist, The Sojourn, which also won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Chautauqua Prize. He lives with his wife and three children in Somerville, Massachusetts.
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I received a free electronic copy of this novel by Netgalley, Andrew Krivak, and Simon and Schuster in exchange for an honest review. Thank you all, for sharing your work with me. This is a truly beautiful novel, the story compelling, the characters honestly portrayed. Andrew Krivak's words flow, evoking a time and a place that feels like home, and brings to mind the sense of family that holds us all together in good times and bad. And this is a family - four generations, before it is over - that you will love. This is a book I must share with my children, with my Mother.