by James Conroyd Martin
Reviewer: Frances Drwal
Push Not the River is as intriguing and engrossing as its title. It is the true story of three years in the life of a young lady in a part of Europe which has long been overlooked or disregarded. Countess Anna Berezowska of Poland left a diary which, encased in wax, was passed on by her descendants through generations for over two hundred years.
The story unfolds in Poland toward the end of the eighteenth century, which was probably the most disastrous but momentous period of history Poland has experienced in its turbulent existence. In 1791, the Third of May Constitution was passed, granting freedom to peasant and noble alike. This first attempt by any European country at democratic reform was not to the liking of Russia and adjoining countries, and reprisals against Poland arose. Polish citizens were divided on whom to support. While Polish certain nobles vacillated, patriots fought for freedom. Kosciuszko and his peasant army won a great battle, but the war was lost and for 123 years, Poland was erased from the map of Europe.
As a member of nobility, young Countess Anna leads a sheltered, idyllic life, until at seventeen she tragically loses her parents. Left alone, she has no choice but to accept the plan of her aunt, now her guardian, Countess Stella Gronska, to leave her ancestral home in the country and come to live with her in Warsaw. Aunt Stella is a strong, wise woman, with a love for her country. Zofia, her beautiful and spirited but conniving daughter, thinks only of herself. Brother Walter mirrors Zofia, is a Russian mercenary and appears sporadically. Shortly after arrival, Anna meets Jan Stelnicki, a patriot involved in his country’s problems. Anna falls in love with him, but Zofia is also interested in him, and a conflict arises. Anna’s life now changes forever. Aunt Stella, unhappy with her children’s lives, turns to Anna and becomes her mentor. Anna becomes involved in politics, is attacked, suffers through an ill-fated marriage through Zofia’s manipulations, overcomes attacks on her life, gives birth to a son and is bestowed the title of Princess by the King of Poland. The political situation worsens, and once again Poland is invaded. Jan is fighting under Kosciu-szko, and battles ensue they win an important battle, but lose the war, which culminates in the total dismemberment of Poland as a nation.
Yet, life goes on – Anna survives all of this amazingly. We see her developing into a mature young woman with a strong will, braver and wiser, following her heart, and understanding and involved with the problems around her, still possessing the qualities which make her so appealing. She emerges an indomitable heroine.
Mr. Martin has written a book that is completely absorbing. You will have difficulty putting it aside. The twists and turns of events, the lives of Anna, Jan, and the Gronski family amid invasions, the war, political and personal intrigues are masterfully interwoven as their story moves on, giving the reader a background in history as well as insights into the lives of people. The language is picturesque, the imagery haunting, and the touches of Polish life, traditions and customs are enriching and add authenticity. The spirit of Poles in adversity, bravery, and re-silience seem to be inborn in Anna, Stella, and Jan. As they risk their lives for a seemingly losing cause, they still have hope and they eventually triumph, as history has proven. You don’t want to leave them, but keep up with their trials and feel their triumphs. As the book ends, Anna has just turned twenty – a whole new life before her. What happened later in her life?
Push Not the River is a must for anyone of Polish descent – it will make you proud of your heritage. It is also a great book for everyone – the story not only of brave and proud individuals, but also of their indestructible and fascinating country and its history.