Wednesday, September 6, 2023

The Turk and My Mother by Mary Helen Stefaniak

The Turk and My Mother by Mary Helen Stefaniak
316 pages
Published January 2004 by W. W. Norton and Company 

Publisher's Summary: 

Every family has its secrets. But toward the end of his life, George decides to tell his daughter the story of his mother and the Turk. This initial revelation leads to a narrative tour de force that follows a family through four generations and around the world―through love, marriage, and betrayal, through illness, death, and war. Mary Helen Stefaniak's charming and flawed characters and the warmth of her prose will stay with readers long after they close the book.

My Thoughts: 
Several years ago my book club read Stefaniak's The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia - we were charmed by the book and by Stefaniak, who graced us with her presence when we met to discuss the book. I've had this book of hers sitting on my shelf for many years and when I chose this years' book club theme, You Learn Something New Every Month, I thought it was a good time to read a book that addresses different cultures and employs a different story telling style. 

I'm sorry to say this one was not a hit with my book club. Although, I think it might have been better received had people found the cast of characters that was hidden at the back of the book. Many people complained that it was confusing and were surprised by some of the things that were revealed to them when we discussed the book. This I attribute to the unusual way the book is crafted. 

The story is based, rather loosely, on members of Stefaniak's own family. Told through the point of view of several different characters, we come at the story from several different vantage points. We start with George and move, without readers even being very much aware of it, to George's grandmother, Staramajka who, in telling the story to her grandchildren, is, in fact, telling it to their mother, Agnes, who is eavesdropping. It's through that story that we come to learn of the relationship between Agnes and a prisoner of war, who is presented as being a Turk (but who, we learn, is actually Serbian) in the small Croatian village where Agnes and her husband, Josef, have started a family. Josef has gone to Milwaukee to earn money, with plans to return to the village. But war intervenes and it's years before Agnes and Josef will reunite. 

We'll learn more about the circumstances of the family when we follow the trail of Josef's brother, Marko, who is taken prisoner by the Russians and presumed to have died. We learn more, yet again, from the point of view of a woman George befriended when they were young. The stories and characters merge and separate and reveal that the details of a story often vary depending on the storyteller. We learn of Staramajka's relationship with a gypsy, of Marko's marriage to a Russian and escape from the White Army, and of Josef's relationship with a woman whose daughter would later befriend George. 

While my book club may not have liked this book, I was the lone exception. Was it confusing at times? Yes. But I loved all of the stories that Stefaniak managed to work into the book and how things tied back together. Most of all, I loved the way the book ended making me want to go write back to the beginning and start again to see what it was that I had missed in the story telling. It's not unusual for me to like a book more than the majority of my book club does (and sometimes less); it's rare for me to be the only person to like a book. But here I am fine with being that person and suggesting that you disregard their opinions and give this book a chance. 

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