In her stunning debut novel, Lilian Nattel brilliantly brings to life the richness of shtetl culture through the story of an imagined village: Blaszka, Poland. Myth meets history and characters come to life through the stories of women's lives and prayers, their secrets, and the intimate details of everyday life. When they were young, four friends were known as the vilda bayas, the wild creatures. But their adult lives have taken them in different directions, and they've grown apart. One woman, Misha, is now the local midwife. In a world where strict rules govern most activities, Misha, an unmarried, independent spirit becomes the wayward heart of Blaszka and the keeper of town secrets. But when Misha becomes pregnant and refuses to divulge the identity of her baby's father, hers becomes the biggest secret of all, and the village must decide how they will react to Misha's scandalous ways. Nattel's magical novel explores the tension between men and women, and celebrates the wordless and kinetic bond of friendship.
Reading Group Guide
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Who is the strongest woman in Blaszka? Is it Misha, for her stubborn will and power to heal, or Faygela, for her ability to write and get stronger with each baby she bears? Is it Hannah-Leah or Alta-Fruma? Or are these two women too diverse in character and temperament to compare? If it were possible, which of these women would you like to befriend, and why?
The author structured this novel in an interesting way, recalling the same events over and over, each time from a different character's perspective. How did each "version" differ from the others? Did you find any one character's point of view more believable than another? Discuss why the author may have chosen this "full-circle" way of constructing her book.
A major turning point for Hannah-Leah is the night she eats all of the strawberries she picked, wades into the river, and throws Misha's potions away. (p. 53) Identify and discuss turning points experienced by other characters in The River Midnight. How do their personal revelations affect the way they feel about themselves, and how are they perceived by others in the village?
The death of Faygela's father made it impossible for her to continue her education in Warsaw. Do you think she would have had the courage to leave if she'd been given the opportunity? If she had gone away to school, would she have returned one day or made her life elsewhere? Discuss the significance behind Faygela's visions of her dead father.
Discuss the notions of religion and tradition as portrayed in The River Midnight. What do the people of Blaszka get out of following their strict religion with its rules, songs, dances, and prayers? Do you think they spend so much time following these traditions that they don't have time to question them? Compare the rituals of Judaism to Misha's rituals of midwifery. Which ones help the people of Blaszka more? Which ones give them the most comfort, and why?
When Izzie tells his sister Emma that they, like all men and women, must distance themselves from each other, he compares them to "milk and meat," which must always be kept apart. Discuss the different ways in which the men and women of Blaszka are divided from each other. In this community, are the women the sweet and comforting "milk," or the strong and substantial "meat"?
Emma's story is presented in a typhus-induced haze. Discuss why the author chose to tell her story that way. Does her dreamy state reflect the way she feels, as she recalls the horror of her parents' death? Does she feel guilty that she survived America and they did not? Do the radical notions Emma brings from New York ill-prepare her for life in Blaszka? Or do they equip her to bring to the village the modern ideas it will need to survive in the next century? Will Emma ever really find her place in Blaszka or has she seen too much of the world to ever be satisfied there?
Do you agree with the statement that "restraint is as much of a sign of the Holy as is courage." (p. 450) If this is true, then is it possible to argue that Yarush, who exhibits courage through his aggression, is as holy as Berekh, who shows restraint through his pragmatism? Although it seems clear that Berekh is a kinder and better man than Yarush, do these men share any traits? Which characters in The River Midnight exhibit restraint and which ones show courage?
Most of the women in the village are far more interested in stories about spirits and demons than they are with Shomer's stories of royalty and heiresses. Why do you think this is so? Discuss this novel's many mystical elements: the angels and potions, the Traveler and Director, and the stories of the Demon Lilith and Manya. What impact does the belief in the supernatural have on the characters' lives? Are they frightened by it? Comforted? Fascinated?
Alta-Fruma was once in love with Adam Hoffmann. Yet on their last visit, she notices flaws she never saw before: his hands are clammy; and his mildness -- once appealing, now seems meek and unbecoming. Do you think Adam changed, or did Alta-Fruma simply overlook his flaws in the past because she needed him in her life? If so, why doesn't she need him anymore? Does anyone else in this novel have a similar revelation, seeing someone they thought they knew for what they really are?
Most of the older characters in this book will live out their lives in the shtetl, relatively unaffected by the passing of time. But the younger generation's last years will be marked by the horrors of the Holocaust. Discuss how your knowledge of the dark history that looms ahead affected (or did not affect) the way you perceived this book and its characters.
Sweet and impressionable Ruthie seems in desperate need of finding a strong female role model. In the end, who do you think she admires the most: Misha, Emma, or her mother, Faygela? Who do you think will ultimately have the greatest impact on her life, how she lives it, and who she becomes? What effect does Ruthie's arrest and imprisonment have on her relationship with her mother and how they talk to one another?
Compare Misha's relationship with Hayim, the water carrier, with her relationship with Berekh. What does Berekh give her that Hayim cannot? Do you think Misha's marriage to Hayim was doomed from the start? Why is Misha the only person Hayim cannot draw?
Tammie Bob Chicago Tribune How Nattel turns the ordinary stuff of [shtetl life] into images that transcend time, place and culture is the real magic of The River Midnight.
R.Z. Sheppard TimeThe River Midnight [is reminiscent] of Marc Chagall's romantic paintings. Like Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County and García Márquez's Macondo, Nattel's imagined backwater is shot through with mythic significance.
Sandra Brooks-Dillard The Denver Post The River Midnight, Lilian Nattel's lovely first novel, is like Fiddler on the Roof without the music...lovingly written, beautifully crafted, meticulously researched.
Megan Harlan Entertainment Weekly Nattel's emotional, panoramic narrative proves extraordinary.
Natasha Stovall The Washington Post [A] mesmerizing first novel...The River Midnight is not simply remarkable as a historical text. Nattel's flair for the telling detail is just one treasure in her bag of writer's tricks.
Roy Hoffman The New York Times Book Review As enchanting as a Chagall mural...Nattel writes with refreshing bawdiness.
R. Z. Sheppard Time [Nattel's] supple narrative technique weds the discipline of scholarship with artistic license. The River Midnight is inspired match-making.
Janice Pomerance Nimura Newsday A magic-realist novel with equal attention to both magic and reality -- not an easy line to walk....Nattel weaves all the strands together in a visionary climax that unites the village and points across the generations to herself.
Laura Rose USA Today Readers who appreciate the magic of quality research wrapped in a well-told tale will find Blaszka worth a visit.
Paula Friedman The San Diego Union-Tribune Lilian Nattel has written a first novel of wondrous mythical depth and rare spiritual beauty....No doubt possessing prodigious literary gifts, Nattel's depth of study and passion for her subject also accounts for The River Midnight's stunning originality.