The Win­ter Guest

  • Review
By – May 22, 2014

Hele­na, an old woman in a New York res­i­dence for the elder­ly, greets two vis­i­tors — a Jew­ish social work­er and a police­man — who have come to talk with her. She is a Pol­ish Jew, and they want to talk about some bones” recent­ly unearthed in her home­town. For them, Hele­na begins her once upon a time” tale. The time was 1940, and the place was a farm in Poland, in the rolling wood­ed hills south­east of Cracow. 

Hele­na recalls her home vil­lage as she recon­structs her family’s win­ter inter­lude with a lone sol­dier. Helena’s mem­o­ry eas­i­ly retrieves a house, a fam­i­ly of five, now par­ent­less, for the father is dead and the moth­er hos­pi­tal­ized. Three young chil­dren are cared for by eigh­teen-year-old iden­ti­cal twins, Ruth and Hele­na. The fam­i­ly con­sid­ers itself Chris­t­ian; while the Church is a minor ele­ment in their lives, a near­by chapel in the woods is an impor­tant set­ting for the sto­ry. Reli­gion of any sort is not a major ingre­di­ent in the ear­ly part of this nov­el; their moth­er is in a Jew­ish hos­pi­tal, how­ev­er, in the town. 

Helena’s fam­i­ly rapid­ly sinks fur­ther into pover­ty, mired by the pri­va­tions around them. Ruth is the big sis­ter and nan­ny author­i­ty; Hele­na, the more world­ly twin. Although they live on an iso­lat­ed farm with piti­ful­ly lim­it­ed crops and ani­mals, they are in a war zone that has been spared direct armed com­bat. Hele­na main­tains con­nec­tions with­in the vil­lage, for she shops, sees, and talks with local offi­cials, but is unaware of the pur­pose of rail­road trains rum­bling past. On the farm, explo­sions are heard inter­mit­tent­ly, Nazi jeeps can be heard on the one local road, and a preda­to­ry police­man rings the bell, alter­nate­ly threat­en­ing and attempt­ing to bribe them. 

But then there is the guest, Sam, a downed Amer­i­can air­man with an injured leg, discov­ered by Hele­na in the chapel. As the inevitable love sto­ry devel­ops, the intre­pid Hele­na dis­cov­ers her mother’s hid­den back­ground. The airman’s Amer­i­can army mis­sion, which he will not aban­don, ener­gizes her into an inves­ti­ga­tion of the Pol­ish Home Army, the par­ti­san forces’ under­ground name. Sam meets her fam­i­ly, and he plans escape. 

Jenoff’s style cul­ti­vates an inter­est­ing rhythm and seg­men­ta­tion in her nar­ra­tive. Two-thirds of the nov­el seems to be writ­ten in slow motion, then the escape, the nav­i­gat­ing of the bor­ders, and the com­plex­i­ties of reach­ing inter­me­di­ate and ulti­mate refuge form the rapid­ly-paced con­clud­ing chap­ters. Sud­den­ly, the sto­ry veers. 

In keep­ing with an iso­lat­ed exis­tence, there are only a few char­ac­ters in the sto­ry — two sis­ters, the sol­dier, sib­lings, and indis­tinct locals — Nazis, Poles, func­tionar­ies — each of whom evokes anx­i­ety and stress, to which Ruth and Hele­na respond alter­nate­ly with timid­i­ty, near-som­no­lence, and a plod­ding desire for change. The phys­i­cal prim­i­tive­ness of their farm­house is often empha­sized; sur­pris­ing­ly, it has electricity. 

Writ­ten with­out chal­leng­ing lan­guage— with the excep­tion of the occa­sion­al Pol­ish words — the book has appeal for both young read­ers and adults.

Relat­ed content:

Read Pam Jenof­f’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

Faith and Fic­tion: This Jew­ish Woman’s Jour­ney to Becom­ing a Novelist

Writ­ing the War

On the Jews of Poland Today

Arlene B. Soifer earned degrees in Eng­lish, and has had many years of expe­ri­ence as a free­lance writer, edi­tor, and pub­lic rela­tions professional.

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