Tonawanda News

May 21, 2012

Stories from the neighborhood, and the concentration camp

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — The person with a haunted past is a familiar and reliable trope in literature and film, and perhaps all of us have something about which to be haunted. A book by Lewiston resident Joseph Leary, “Klara,” sharply explains a story of past misdeeds in a well-written and evocative novel.

The back cover mentions little about the author, only that he is “an avid student of history,” and in at least one regard he has truly done his homework. While the plot concerns a Chicagoan accused of Nazi atrocities in his youth, it’s 1977 Chicago, one neighborhood in particular, which is admirably brought to life.

Stories come out of every American ghetto. This one concerns the Ukrainian Village, exactly what its name implies, and it is peopled with typecast characters that are expertly brought out of stereotype by the author. The residents of the neighborhood, like many elsewhere, can be categorized as busy, hard-working and suspicious of other people and things. A pride in ethnic identity is often the flip side of racism, stasis and a sort of social myopia. Transferring everything positive about the Old Country to one section of a city in the New seems an ideal way to get along, until a wider world gets in the way; it takes about one generation for the cracks to begin showing, and another generation to see it fall apart.

The author is not the first to take up a story such as this, in which an immigrant works hard to thrive while hiding some secrets from a past he has tried to forget, but it is in the details that the book shines. 

The constant in this Chicago Ukrainian neighborhood is the aroma. Every scene in the book is permeated with bakery smells, tobacco smells, the smell of people and clothes in the rain. The book, and the reader, is awash in them, the way a reader of a novel on the high seas can hear and feel the waves of the ocean. It is used effectively as a literary device here.

The characters are given over to perhaps too much over-analysis, but it’s a book about long-held secrets and what motivated them. It admirably explains how, for example, a priest like Stefan Mazur becomes a pillar in his community through favor-trading, delivery of votes in key elections and active participation in the day-to-day, give-and-take of his parishioners. However they relate to God through the Ukrainian Catholic Church, the Church as neighborhood nerve center is well-defined.

Of particular interest to some may be the history lesson imparted. Some know how the Soviet Union overran and absorbed Ukraine with horrifying consequences to the Ukrainians, how the invasion of Germany was practically welcomed, and how the consequences of concentration camps turned the ethnicities and nations of Eastern Europe into victims and victimizers. The book’s mystery involves Ukrainian policemen, Hungarian detainees and Polish camps, and it that’s unfamiliar to the reader, it is explained admirably here.

Peter Smolenska, a carpenter, may or may not have been a Nazi collaborator. Klara has dreams about it. Father Mazur wheels and deals to keep a parishioner from deportation and trial. Mrs. Antonovych, a strange old woman of the sort Maria Ouspenskaya played in vintage horror movies, moves in and out as something of a proclaiming angel.

Ethnic enclaves in large American cities have a million stories — anyone with a talkative grandmother can understand that — and this is one of them, very well told. Author Leary has taken a strong, if fictionalized, incident and magnified it, turning easily ignorable characters into flesh-and-blood people with simultaneous heroism and cowardice in their veins.

It is suggested this is Leary’s first novel. I hope he writes more.

Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident and can be contacted at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.