The River Midnight
by Lillian Nattel, Scribner, $25
Lillian Nattel’s The River Midnight is a delightful debut novel that captures the life of a shtetl in fictional Blaszka—”less than a dot on the map of Russian-occupied Poland”—at the turn of the century. Nattel gives us four “vilda hayas” (wild animals), as the girls were known. Her book is grounded in the history of the pogroms, the influence of the emigration to America, the burgeoning socialist movement, the cultural life of Warsaw and the changing role of women as the new century begins.
Every section begins and ends with the same events over a nine-month period, but each story is told and retold by different narrators. Hearing so many voices—five women and four men—the reader can’t reduce the villagers of Blaszka to the stock characters of nostalgic Jewish fiction.
The heart of this tale lives in the story of four strong women coping with their own surprises and disappointments. Misha, the divorced midwife, is an unconventional character who stands out in the body of shtetl literature. Completely free, she becomes a mentor for young women, inspiring strength and kindness among her pupils and the villagers alike. Her surprising love affair and pregnancy change not only her life, but the story of the whole village.
While The River Midnight centers on a community that will be ravaged by the Holocaust, Nattel doesn’t allow the impending doom to enter her story. She gives us passionate love, mystery, family bonds as strong as a cable, and enduring friendships, as well as a realistic portrait of shtetl life before the war.
Natalie Blitt is a writer living in New York.