In 1951, a grim hush has settled over Hungary. After a lost war and a brutal transition to communism, the people live under constant threat of blacklisting, property confiscation, arrest, imprisonment, and worse. In this milieu of dread, the best land of Péter Benedek's peasant family is seized and his life upended. Moving to Budapest for a manual labor job, Péter meets Katalin Varga, an unwed mother whose baby's father has vanished, most likely at the hands of the secret police. Both Péter and Katalin keep their heads down and their mouths clamped shut, because silence is the only safety they know.
The two have something in common besides fear: they are singers whose very natures make the silence unbearable. When Katalin starts giving Péter voice lessons, they take an intrepid step out of hiding by making music together. Little by little they tell each other what they cannot tell others. In their bond of trust, they find relief and unexpected happiness.
Yet the hurts and threats in their lives remain, waiting. As harsh reality assaults them again, is hope even possible? Facing their hardest trials yet, Péter and Katalin learn to carve dignity and beauty out of pain.
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About the Author
onnie Hampton Connally has loved music and the written word all her life. She’s published magazine stories and newspaper articles, worked as an editor, and taught high school English and elementary music. Through teaching music, she discovered the work of Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály, who uplifted his nation through decades of war, fascism and communism. Ms. Connally couldn’t resist this theme of beauty amidst hardship. She wrote The Songs We Hide as a result, and she is currently writing another novel set in Hungary.
Read an Excerpt
Tuesday evening as Katalin came home with Mari on her hip, she was heading along the second-floor balcony when she heard someone call her name. Looking over the railing into the courtyard, she saw Péter Benedek standing beside a dirt patch where two short green rows had sprouted. He lifted his cap to her. She would have simply waved and walked on, except that he was regarding her worriedly, and after glancing around, he beckoned. She carried Mari down the back stairs and joined him. Above, the early evening sky misted a cold gray.
"Is something wrong?" she asked.
He gripped the handle of a hoe. "Katalin … eh … Antal said … maybe you could help me sing? Lessons?"
"I don't know why Antal told you that. I've never taught singers before."
"But would you? I mean … please?"
She had never known Péter to look directly at her for longer than half a second; now it seemed those hazel eyes behind the wire glasses would stare at her until next October if it took her that long to answer.
"I would pay," he said.
Katalin thought his worried look deepened. She could not imagine that Péter, coming from Lord-knows-where in the country, had any money to spare.
"How would you ever practice?" she asked. "Where?"
"I don't know, maybe in the cellar."
"It isn't private."
"And voice lessons can be embarrassing. You have to make ridiculous sounds, buzz your lips, sing nonsense. And I can't promise that my family won't hear you. And the neighbors. And do you smoke? If you want to be a good singer, you can't smoke. My mother has been saying that all my life."
"All right. I won't smoke."
Mari was clinging to Katalin's arm and regarding Péter as though he were a great mystery. And maybe he was. Katalin could not understand how this quiet fellow could be coaxed to sing loud enough for anyone to hear him.
"You don't really want to do this, do you?" she asked.
He shifted the hoe to his other hand, and his answer was slow to come. "Some days … many days … singing is the only pleasure, you know? And also … Antal said sometimes music works even if talking doesn't. Or something like that."
Maybe it was Antal who had said it, but it sounded so much like Róbert. Katalin was going to tell Péter that this just wouldn't be possible, she didn't have time, she wasn't a teacher. But when she looked at him again, none of those words would come.
She relented. "We could start Thursday night."
He squinted a little, broke a smile, almost laughed. "Good!"
"As for pay," she said, "when you go home, if you find something that's hard to get in Budapest, bring it. We're always running out of soap. Where is home, by the way?"
He took a step back, looked away. "I will try to find some soap," he replied.