Warsaw Spring

by Heather Kirk
256 pages,
ISBN: 0929141865

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Children's Books
by Clara Thomas

Heather Kirk's Warsaw Spring is designated "Young adult fiction." This "old adult" found it engrossing, a story told with skill and conviction for readers of all ages. It concerns the rebellious teenage and gradual maturing of Eva Wojnar, its narrator. Her father, whom she has never known, was Polish, a pilot with the R.A.F. during World War II. Her mother Magda, the daughter of Polish immigrants to Canada, is now married to George. Eva's rejection of them and their comfortable middle-class values is the starting point of her difficult journey. Her maternal grandmother, Babka Goralski, she loves, but she scorns Babka's concern for her, drops out of school and begins waitressing, saving her money frantically so that she can go to Poland. Her Aunt Janina has invited her for a visit, but her deeper purpose is to find her father. It is 1979 and Poland, of course, is under the thumb of Soviet Russia.
From the very beginning the success of this novel depends on the voice of Eva. To me it rings perfectly true¨her initial superficially cynical, smart-alec tone is all too familiar to me, one I encountered often, teaching through the sixties and seventies. I felt the same about her enquiring mind and her extensive vocabulary. Eva admits that her History and English teachers admire her work and encourage her, though she pays no attention to subjects that don't interest her. Kirk gives us her constant internal monologue in italics and a bit later, in a diary. The diary device serves Eva well¨we begin to know and to appreciate her slow maturing, signalled by her increasingly serious questioning and glimmers of compassionate understanding.
Forced into a sudden panic by the restaurant owner's clumsy attempt at rape, Eva runs away from Edmonton and everything she knows and sets off on her long journey. At the airport she is befriended by an elderly Polish couple who help her to telegraph her arrival. Once in Warsaw her growing-up begins. Hanna, a half-sister of whom she was unaware, meets her, takes her to her sparsely furnished apartment and begins the process of educating her. Her shocked eyes open to Warsaw under Soviet domination and to the appalling legacy of the ruinous, barbaric cruelties of the war years. Hanna is a librarian and an Art Historian: repressed, cautious, fearful and to Eva's Canadian sensibilities paranoid, she and all the others whom Eva meets awaken pity, fear and a grudging but growing respect. The conditions under which they live, with few of the conveniences that Canadians take for granted, with very little food for sale and almost never any meat, begin to shake her out of her self-indulgent, rebellious and cynical mind-set. Gradually she and Hanna become close; gradually Hanna judges her ready to learn more and understand more about her people.
Then, at a party given by Aunt Janina she meets Mark, a young translator, whose father, a favoured member of the Communist Party, has access to a car and luxuries that are completely out of the reach of Hanna and most people. Now, and this is a clever stroke in Kirk's characterization, we see the teenager Eva breaking through again: Will Mark ask her for a date? Is she too fat? Will she say the right things? Will she be "cool"?
Kirk has structured her novel carefully and cleverly, showing Eva's gradual education in people and place, her initial disbelief giving way to understanding and affection. We are well prepared for her climactic experiences, the worst and the best that Poland has to offer: she and Hanna tour through the former wartime hell of Auschwitz and she witnesses Pope John Paul II's first pilgrimage back to his homeland, when millions of his countrymen confirmed their faith and love.
Then, suddenly, an urgent telegram: Babka is very sick and Eva must return to Canada. A well-worn plot device but it works logically and well here. Eva's maturing is in process but she still has miles to go. A phone call puts her in touch with her father but is that the end of her quest? And what of Hanna who is going to join her? And above all what of Mark? All those unanswered questions signal a sequel in store. One book is not enough for Eva!

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