March 31, 2011
The Silence of Trees is a modern American narrative steeped in fairy tale. Though some scenes are rather laborious, most provide excellent vehicles for conveying Ukranian folklore and religion, the surrealism of war and immigration, and a woman sharing her story with both bluntness and wonder, the mixed result of finding her own voice after decades of restrained living.
Few book reviews start with a foot rub but, really, more should. In one of the most thrilling scenes in Valya Dudycz Lupescu’s first novel—exciting for its unabashed passion and feminism, and most important for the new story it promises to start even thirty pages from the book’s end—octogenarian narrator Nadya gets a foot rub from a long-lost love.
“I sat down and lifted my feet . . . “May I?” and before I could answer, he had lifted my long skirt and begun to pull down my stockings. “Um, okay,” I said, since one stocking was already off . . . His fingers moved up to each toe, and he paid them equal attention: pinching, pulling, and squeezing in a way that made me warm all over.”
They move on to “deep passionate kisses, like the ones I had seen in the movies,” fueled by Cosmos and champagne and more than fifty years of repressed physical and spiritual lust.
This is not your grandmother’s post–World War II Ukranian American immigrant drama. Or rather, it is—more real stories, similar to fictional Nadya’s own personal reimagined, repurposed version of a fairy tale, exist; we just need more writers such as Lupescu, founding editor of Conclave: A Journal of Character, to help us hear them.
Though great-grandmother Nadya has lived most of her adult life as a homemaker in Chicago, she’s still a person trapped between identities. She wears even her own name as though it’s a coat one size too big; indeed, it is neither her family’s surname nor her husband’s, but one she hid behind during the war. As a child, Nadya is told by a fortune-teller that she will suffer much dissatisfaction and sorrow but will eventually live happily ever after. It’s not until Nadya receives an envelope, missing both its sender’s name and its letter, from her obscure birthplace, that she’s forced to confront past and present events: the loss of family and lovers, her granddaughter’s German American boyfriend, and her best friend’s unexpected suicide. Nadya’s transformation over the course of the novel is all about her learning to release these violent and heartbreaking secrets of war that she’s carried for half a century—and to accept different stories for her future.
At the same time, the reader of The Silence of Trees is treated to the palatable texture of old-fashioned bedtime stories. Watch a starving old woman devour each crumb of her loaf of bread; hear as “she licked her palms over and over and over, in between each finger, sucking on each fingertip;” and then taste all you have in your pocket, a black river stone that looked like “a piece of night sky filled with stardust.” Mingle your senses—“I closed my eyes to savor the spiced breath of the night”—and twist their meanings so that gray tree branches become “gnarled letters against the night.”
Nadya’s life follows a path along which she is repeatedly told that her voice is her one constant. In Ukranian culture, loved ones can survive physical death to continue speaking to the living. During the war, her own voice is Nadya’s only true weapon. The man who hides Nadya from soldiers demands, “Cry if you have to. Scream if that’s what’s inside. Don’t let those bastards take away your voice.” Decades later, Nadya explains her war-filled past to her granddaughter: “So many times I wished that I were a man [ . . . ] Men have revenge as an option.” But her granddaughter replies, “Silence is not your only option.” All of these claims for her voice, but it takes a sheep in wolf’s clothing—that foreboding but ultimately hopeful empty envelope—to force Nadya to finally really understand the magic of her words.