The Turk and My Mother
"Written with humor and affection, Stefaniak's first novel breathes life into the hardships, secrets, and enduring love that bind an American family to its immigrant past."
"With wonderful insights into the immigrant experience--and with a sense of humor that encourages the reader to laugh out loud--Mary Helen Stefaniak tells an unforgettable story."
"The Turk and My Mother reinvents the family saga and the art of storytelling as we know it."
"Stefaniak's easy familiarity with the vernacular idioms of the old country and the new, and her respectful, zestful ear for different voices, create a world . . . at once magical and grounded in reality."--Publishers Weekly
“You don’t just read The Turk and My Mother,” says Jane Glaser, book club coordinator at Next Chapter Books in Mequon, WI. “You participate in it, like one of the characters, eavesdropping on family secrets that may or may not be meant for your ears.”
When Josef Iljasic leaves for America in the spring of 1914, his wife Agnes believes that he will return to their village in Austro-Hungary. Instead, the Great War rises up between them, a wall six years thick. But Agnes and her mother-in-law--known to all as Staramajka--don't feel stranded in the Old Country. As far as they’re concerned, Staramajka’s sons are the ones who are missing: Josef in Milwaukee, an enemy alien now, and his younger brother Marko, a soldier on the Russian front, soon missing in action and bound for Siberia. In the village, the women thank heaven for the Turk--a prisoner quartered in Staramajka’s barn--who helps with heavy tasks.
Eighty years later, in Milwaukee, Staramajka’s elderly grandson George admits, “It’s hard for me to picture my mother in love,” but that doesn’t stop him from telling the story of his mother and the Turk.
Forbidden passion follows the family on both sides of the ocean. By the time The Turk and My Mother comes to its surprising end, five buried love stories have come to light. In a novel that traverses the century and moves from Siberia to Milwaukee with the turn of a phrase, the past has its own life inside the present. Stories vanquish family secrets, reminding us that we have to remember before we forgive and forget.
Excerpt from The Turk and My Mother:
My grandmother had her own style of storytelling, a style that avoided accommodating her listeners in any way. She never started right in with what happened, which was, of course, what you wanted to hear. First, she had to make you see where the story took place, especially if it took place in her village, which was where most of the stories she considered worth telling took place. You had to hear about the fence cleverly woven of branches, the dirt yard full of chickens, the four fat pigs that her son sold off when our mother was pregnant with Madeline and couldn't stand the smell of them. "What's the matter with her nose, huh?" Staramajka asked us. "Everybody else can stand to smell a pig, no matter what special condition they are in, but my Marko, to make his brother's wife happy, he sells all the pigs. 'I can buy them back later,' Marko said, but then the army came and took him, so we ended up with no men and no pigs either. That's why the mayor asked us to take the Turk in the first place-- no pigs on the premises."
My ears perked up at this early mention of the Turk, but it was a false alarm. We had yet to hear (not for the first time) about the crucifix that guarded the end of the single street flanked with yellow houses, about the thick clay walls of the houses and their thatched roofs, about storks who liked to nest in summer on the chimneys--big birds with long pink legs. "Pretty to look at but they make a big mess. Not at our house, though, because of my rooster. He didn't like those storks. If one came, he would crow like crazy and make it fly off. He was better than a guard dog, my rooster. When soldiers came to the village and stole our chickens and pigs, they never laid a finger on that rooster of mine. Your grandpa called him-- " and for the rooster's name, she always switched from Croatian to Hungarian, which my sister and I had never learned to speak, adding, as if she were sorry to inconvenience us, "His name means something I can't say to children."
"We're not children," I protested, but my sister Madeline, who was sitting in a cloud of featherbeds with her greased and gauze-wrapped hands in her lap, looked satisfied, under the circumstances, to be a child for a while. I think she liked Staramajka's long preambles anyway, probably because she remembered the village herself--she was five or six when they left it--and she liked to have the lines and shapes of the place redrawn for her now and again to keep them sharp and clear.
"Speak for yourself," she said to me. "And don't interrupt."
Staramajka made a great show of ignoring both of us, sitting back in her wooden rocking chair. This was the same chair she hauled out to the porch every fine morning and dragged back inside every night, the same one in which she spent most of her evenings beside the radio in the front room, listening to the Voice of Firestone, the same one in which we would find her dead one day, looking very much the way she did right now: her eyes closed and her face toward the ceiling, the cheekbones high and round like apples, the rest scooped hollow by her lack of teeth. When she was ready to resume her story, she opened her eyes and peered at us from deep caverns under the bony shelf of her forehead, making us feel that we were in the presence of one both ancient and timeless. In years, she must have been about 65.