Monday, August 3, 2020

The Black Madonna of Derby, by Joanna Czechowska (author), Claire Nicholls (narrator)

Joanna Czechowska, April 2020

The Baran family of Derby, England, is caught between its Polish past and its English future.

Barbara and her daughter Helena both survived the war, but separately. On one awful day in Warsaw, Helena got caught in a retaliatory roundup that Barbara just escaped, and was taken to Germany. She became a slave laborer in a clothing factory that made German uniforms. Barbara, left behind, kept her head down and survived the war. After the war, Helena made her way to England, married a Polish man who also came to England after the war, and had three children, Wanda, Zosia, and Janek. Eventually, she found out her mother was alive, in Poland, and asked her to come to England.

We follow the lives of the family through the sixties and seventies.
The three children all handle their Polish heritage very differently, with Zosia in love with her grandmother's romantic version of Poland before the war; Janek, the youngest, embracing England and English ways completely; Wanda, the oldest, caught between the two, running away from her Polish heritage but not completely abandoning it.

Over the years, we see how many secrets the family has. Barbara has important secrets she hasn't told her daughter and grandchildren about her husband, Pyotr, who was, she wants them to remember, a prince. Helena has her own secrets, about Germany and her war years there, and about how she really feels about her mother, just a few feet away from her, not having been caught in the roundup. Zosia never tells her parents about what she experiences at the "better" school she gets into with her excellent test results. Wanda, after she goes to London to work in a clothing shop, has secrets of her own, about her friends, and her experiences in the rented room in a vicarage.

These are each in their own ways strong characters, building new lives and new identities in what is, for them, a new country. It's gritty story with some real hardships and losses, but also real victories. Czechowska cares deeply about her characters, and makes them real individuals, with strengths and weaknesses. It's not an easy read, for the most part, but it is a good one.

I received a free copy of this audiobook from the publisher, and am reviewing it voluntarily.

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