Friday, August 21, 2009

Book Review Friday - Against a Crimson Sky

My note: I had the opportunity to read this before I read "Push Not The River" and I totally enjoyed the story. It put me in touch with my "roots."

Against a Crimson Sky
By: James Conroyd Martin
ISBN: 0-312-32682-3
St. Martin’s Press
4.5 Stars

“Against a Crimson Sky” takes a gripping historical look at the final partition of Poland (1795), it’s people, and tells the personal story of the Stelnickis. Martin uses a grand, sweeping style reminiscent of epic storytelling to paint a vivid picture of the era. “Against a Crimson Sky” is a book that can easily be visualized on the movie screen.

The story beings in 1794 shortly after the Russians invade Poland before the country’s final partition. Zofia Gonska is pulled from a river escaping death. Switching scenes, Countess Anna Berezowska-Grawlinska (minor Polish nobility) makes her way back home to Sochaczew after the Russian invasion of Praga and reunites with her lover, Count Jan Stelnicki. As Poland is finally taken over by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, Anna and Jan get married and start their family.

Zofia, Anna’s cousin, had previously tried to keep Anna and Jan apart. Now, she finds herself drawn to the peasant boy who saved her, Jerzy. Zofia though is like a bird that can’t stay still and the peasant life isn’t for her. She leaves Jerzy and returns to Praga, a town just outside of Warsaw, and gives birth to her daughter, Izabel.

Anna and Zofia make peace, yet Jan finds married life unable to satisfy his restless nature. When Napolean hints that he would return Poland to the Poles, Jan and his friend, Pawel, join the Emperor’s legion, leaving Anna to raise their three children, Jan Michel, Tadeusz, and Barbara. Anna, uncomfortable with the local magistrate, Dolinski, leaves Sochaczew and moves in with Zofia at Praga.

As Napoleon marches across Europe, Anna and Zofia, as members of Poland’s nobility, help to entertain various European dignitaries, including Russia’s Czar, Alexander, and even Napolean himself. Zofia is always in the thick of Polish intrigue while Anna prefers to keep her eyes on her boys who have gone to military school.

After years apart, Jan is reunited with Anna in Sochaczew as their boys join Napolean’s march into Russia. This time it’s Anna who leaves Jan to work as a nurse in Praga. As Napolean’s march into Russia holds the promise of a reunited Poland, will Jan and Anna’s marriage withstand another separation? The end of the novel is surprising and satisfying.

The book’s historical backdrop is intriguing and the supporting cast is not only dynamic, but strong in it’s own right. Zofia, Pawel, Charlotte, and Dolinski have their own interesting stories to share. Anna is a vibrant lead character in her own right and is a steady, grounding force during the turbulent times of the book. Anna’s nobility, whatever the situation, always shines through.

The pace is quick and the writing is sharp. The book is a sequel to “Push Not the River,” but stands on it’s own. For an exciting look at Poland’s struggles and the human condition in the face of war, “Against a Crimson Sky,” is a book that will keep the reader turning the page.

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