MAY 12, 2012
OVER THE LAST FEW years, the poet and novelist Terese Svoboda has dedicated herself to the subtle upending of literary expectations. Her 2010 novel Pirate Talk or Mermalade seemed at first to be something of a romp, a nautical tale involving pirates, sea battles, and journeys to distant polar landscapes. What emerged instead was something much darker, the novel’s dialogue-only approach paving the way for a meditation on the unknowability of others. We’re introduced to brothers who turn out to be something besides brothers; seemingly solid relationships are dispelled with a handful of words; and one of the few tender scenes of a family dining at home gives way to a vivid verbal description of a hanging.
Bohemian Girl, Svoboda’s latest novel, seems at first glance to fall into one of two distinct categories. In the most basic sense, the book is a picaresque: one character’s journey translated into a series of encounters with disparate individuals. But it also resembles, for lack of a better phrase, the novel as response. (Is there a proper term for the literary equivalent of the answer song: the likes of Wide Sargasso Sea and Jack Maggs?) Svoboda borrows her title from Willa Cather, and another Cather quote serves as one of Bohemian Girl‘s epigraphs. Yet in the end, the novel transcends both categories. As in Mermalade, Svoboda seems less concerned with falling into a particular literary tradition than finding memorable images around the fringes of several. Bohemian Girl continues her meditation on mysteries, strange fixations, and collapsing families.
Here, the setting is Nebraska, opening near the start of the Civil War. Our narrator, we’ll come to learn, is called Harriet — though that isn’t her real name. In one of many nods to Svoboda’s preferred themes, Harriet keeps her true name close to herself, never reaching the point of comfortable revelation. The daughter of a Bohemian father and a French mother, Harriet’s voice initially makes use of a fractured syntax, of patterns that loop back on themselves. And it’s in this roundabout style that her opening sentence establishes Bohemian Girl‘s themes of family, necessity, and casual betrayal: “Pa lost me on a bet he could not break, nor would, having other daughters to do for, and other debt besides.”
Harriet is to be held for four years by a solitary man, referred to only as “The Indian.” The Indian is the novel’s most obsessive character, fixated on the mounds built by the Hopewell culture centuries before, and striving to replicate its feats. Eventually, Harriet escapes; seeking her lost father, she has a series of encounters with fugitives and outcasts, the Civil War to the east serving as a constant and fearsome presence. In the novel’s second half, she settles uneasily into life in a small town, and the book’s picaresque mood ebbs away in favor of meditations on family, community, and identity.
Harriet is a cagey narrator, revealing certain things in confessional detail and keeping others hidden. This, in some ways, mirrors her own progression from captive to fugitive to furtive member of a community. As she grows older, her use of language evolves toward a more assured arrangement of words. With a light touch, and in unexpected ways, Svoboda evokes Harriet’s growing confidence with the English language. Later in the book, once Harriet is settled into the more comfortable life of a shopkeeper, she describes one interaction:
A wagon rolls in with a story of ladies burnt up when their dresses blew into a campfire so I sell shot to sew into the hem for cooking on windy days. Don’t drown on the river crossings, I warn them, these hems are heavy.
Svoboda sometimes shifts from Harriet’s perspective to that of her onetime captor, who observes political shifts and questions forced migrations as the government displaces him from his lands. Though initially jarring, these transitions also lend depth to certain characters Harriet only encounters briefly. And, for those characters, it’s a wise choice: In keeping with the picaresque tradition alluded to in the novel’s first half, many of the supporting players Harriet meets are decidedly larger-than-life. This quality works well at the outset, but as the story deepens, dramatic weight is forced on certain characters who aren’t always up to the task.
One in particular, an irreverent Jewish traveling salesman, is initially established as an eccentric figure, the comic relief to balance Harriet’s forced bondage and, later, her struggles in attempting to raise an abandoned child. He interacts with her in a variety of capacities: at first, a sympathetic ear during her captivity, and later, the conduit for news of the larger world. By novel’s end, he has attempted to turn the townspeople against her by revealing the fraudulent means by which she’s come about her business. But it seems arbitrary; his relatively benign demeanor and occasional exasperated bursts of Yiddish don’t provide any foregrounding for his ultimately antagonistic role.
Others fare better: As Harriet’s hidden name indicates, Svoboda is interested in delving into issues of fundamental unknowability, here mirrored by the nascent state’s shifting borders and fluctuating political mood. And so we’re given the Indian’s fixation on mound-building, which bewilders nearly everyone who encounters him; Harriet’s elusive father, whose motivations for using her to settle a wager are never explained (though several contradictory options are suggested); and Harriet’s sometime companion Sharon, whose relationship to the boy Harriet will later effectively adopt is left ambiguous. Svoboda makes certain traits clear, such as Harriet’s dedication to seeking out her father. But overall, this is a novel populated by characters dwelling in ambiguity, determined to avoid clarification. Svoboda’s use of time, in which a stray reference to the age of Harriet’s ward indicates that years have passed since the last chapter, adds to the sense of disorientation.
Throughout, there are clues to Svoboda’s literary predecessors. The Willa Cather quote that opens the book is one of several points in which Bohemian Girl nods in the direction of My Ántonia. Both novels focus on immigrants from Bohemia; both novels spend time on the minutiae of fabric and delight in describing the local geography. While Cather’s eye turns to beautiful vistas, Svoboda’s perspective is grimmer, viewing the natural world as a source of constant danger. The open field that presents a breathtaking view might suddenly host a fatal storm of lightning.
The most overt interplay between Cather’s work and Svoboda’s comes with the arrival of one particular character, a young writer from an old Virginia family and a likely stand-in for Cather herself. The writer shows up briefly at the end of one chapter, then promptly exits the book with a declaration of “O pioneers!” that awkwardly tips the scale toward metafiction.
While Bohemian Girl does provide a greater (and grittier) historical context for the immigrant narratives that Cather’s novel invokes, Svoboda’s book, with its poignant and haunting themes, is at its strongest when it stands on its own. The novel is a journey into history’s less-charted corners and into spaces where the nature of bonds and relationships are constantly rewritten. Bohemian Girl is most memorable when it focuses on notions of obsession, determination, and the ambiguity that surrounds its characters’ interactions. Like Mermalade, it’s a disconcerting but ultimately satisfying look at the outskirts of history.