Lilian Nattel - The River Midnight

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The River Midnight: Rivers, pools, eddies...

Apr 16, 2001 (Updated Apr 1, 2002)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Elegant style, believable characters.

Cons:Unusual POV will take getting used to, but worth it in the long run.

The Bottom Line: Touching, rich story of humanity and a glimpse of a vanished world.


Once upon a time, in a little village, there were four girls called the vildas havas, the wild creatures. One got married and had many children. One got married and had no children. One went away to America. One did not marry at all... but then, one of her ancestress' was a witch.

This is one of the best first novels that I have ever read. It starts in Poland, in the little shtetl, or village, that is the home of the four girls at the begining of the century. The story moves forward and backwards in time, telling the same story, all of it pivoting around the daughter of Faygela, one of the first vildas havas, a young woman named Ruthie, and her arrest for having a bundle of revolutionary pamphlets tucked away in her basket. Now, how Ruthie got her hands on those pamphlets and why is discovered as we travel through the novel, seeing the story retold over and over, through the eyes of the people of the village, sometimes the men, sometimes the women, but each retelling shows all the various ties and threads, some thin, some thick, that connect everyone to everyone else, and gradually relationships between children and parents, cousins and friends, are revealed, adding more texture and layers to the story. Stories connect from the past, from advice from grandmothers, to delicate hints of the future where descendants of these villagers travel to America and meet with both tragedy and happiness.

Most mysteriously of all, there are two unnamed characters, who are known simply as the Traveller and the Director, each with distinctive attire and appearance, who appear and vanish in different places and times, each time with a gift for one of the characters, whether it is a handcarved doll or words to comfort or visions of the future. Are they Angels? Demons?

We get to have glimpses of these people's lives, of their quarrels and lovemaking, of their fights and agreements, of secrets kept and broken. Each one is distinct, from Herschel the village butcher and husband of the childless Hannah-Leah, who is suddenly and unexpectedly elected the village spokesman in a moment of crisis. Faygela, surrounded by her numerous children and mother of the hapless Ruthie; Alte-Fruma, aunt to Emma and Isidore, who can turn herself into a clever little frog. And then there is the marvelous Misha, the village midwife, whose fatherless child decides to be born on Yom Kippur...

What happens, well, you can discover for yourself; this book is too delightful to tell everything that happens. It was like hearing my own grandmother speak, telling me a story that I have heard many times before, but with each retelling, I found something new, a new face, or thought. I could almost hear her voice in my ear, whispering magical tales of the past. There is plenty of Yiddish expressions, and teachings of the Talmud, and odd little bits of folklore.

What I found to be the most haunting part of the book?

Of the Rabbi holding the Gypsy child, in the far future, singing "This is your Torah!" on Simchat Torah, able to find meaning in what can only be the most dreadful time for anyone to experience. I can only hope that I can find similar joy in such a time of dispair.

There is a lot of Yiddish in the book, but the author has thoughtfully provided a glossary and bibliography in the back for those of you who are inspired to read further. The paperback edition also has some questions for a reading club to consider and to give thought to.


Recommend this product? Yes


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