Fiction — Kindle edition. Random House, 2014. Originally published 1983. 688 pgs. Library copy.
Covering eight centuries of Polish history, Michener’s novel begins in the then-present day of 1981 with a sit down between the fictional Minister of Agriculture of communist Poland, Szymon Bukowski, and the leader of the farmers, Janko Buk, who are operating same vain as the Solidarity movement occurring in Gdansk. Bukowski and Buk come to realize their family history — and, in fact, the history of Poland as a nation and a people — are entwined and, upon that realization, the novel jumps back to 1240 to follow the struggles of the fictional Counts Lubonski, nobles Bukowksi, and the peasants Buk families.
With the exception of the first chapter and the last, each chapter in Michener’s novel functions as a largely standalone story about an important moment in Polish history. The second chapter covers the invasion of Poland by the Tatars in 1240 and 1241, including the Siege of Kraków and the Battle of Legnica, before jumping ahead to 1410 and the Battle of Grunwald with the Teutonic Knights in the third chapter. The fourth and fifth chapters cover the seventeenth century with the collapse of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Battle of Vienna during the invasion of Poland by the Ottomon Empire.
“A Pole is a man born with a sword in his right hand, a brick in his left. When the battle is over, he starts to rebuild.”
The eighteenth century — marked by the creation of the Sejm, the partitioning of Poland, and the Kościuszko Uprising — is covered in the sixth chapter whereas the seventh chapter moves to Vienna to cover the Habsburg monarchy. The next three chapters cover the portions of Polish history that I am more familiar with, including the reconstitution of Poland following World War I, the invasion of the country by the Nazis during World War II, and the subsequent Soviet occupation, before the reader is reunited with Bukowski and Buk in 1981 and the power shift occurring between Communist and anti-communist forces within the country.
The one hundred to two hundred year jumps between chapters meant Michener’s novel lacks the intimate connection with a particular family of characters that I’ve come to expect with his novels. Other than Count Lubonski’s American wife and Janko Buk’s mother, the characters failed to leave a lasting impression me.
Yet Michener managed to make the sweeping saga of Poland’s existence — from a fledgling state in the 1200s to a Soviet satellite state in the 1980s — highly accessible and interesting. I was utterly enthralled with the history of this country as depicted by Michener, with the exception of the post-WWI chapter centered around an artistic appreciation of Poland’s favorite composer, Chopin. (I posted on GoodReads while I was reading the novel that I found the last two chapters — one covering the division of Poland by Russia, Austria, and Prussia and the other on Chopin’s music — to be quite the slog.)
In fact, my recent trip to Poland would have been far less engaging and informative if I hadn’t read this book as I crisscrossed the southern portion of the country, which is where the majority of the book takes place. The early chapters centered around Kraków were particularly enlightening; I felt far more informed by Michener’s fictionalized account of the city’s history than I did by the guidebook that accompanied me on my walks through the city.