From The Polish Review, Vol. 61, No. 1, 2016. Copyright 2016 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Reprinted with permission.
Marie Sontag, Rising Hope Book I: Warsaw Rising Trilogy (Mechanicsburg, PA: Sunbury Press, 2015), 220 pp. ISBN 97816220065563.
Polish and Polish American themes in English- language fiction for young readers are rare indeed. A few titles for children were published during the 1980s by Anne Pellowski, and in the early 2000s Karen Cushman came out with her novel Rodzina about a Polish preteen traveling west on an orphan train. Titles for adolescents have been just as rare. Two notable novels for young adults include Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s A Coalminer’s Bride: The Diary of Anetka Kaminska (2000), a historical narrative set in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania in the late 1800s, and Maja Wojciechowska’s brilliant fictionalized memoir of World War II, Till the Break of Day (1972). With the publication of Rising Hope, Marie Sontag joins this small group of writers focused on young readers. Sontag, just like Wojciechowska, chooses World War II as the background of her novel, but unlike Wojciechowska, she does so without the advantage of personal experience. Sontag’s interest in Polish history might have been generated by her family background. In the novel’s dedication, she identifies her paternal grandfather’s name as Reikowski.
Rising Hope is the first volume in Sontag’s ambitious plan for a trilogy of historical novels for young adults, novels set in Poland during the most turbulent times of recent Polish history. Her initial volume covers the five years of German occupation beginning with September 1939 and ending with the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 and the methodical destruction of the city by the Germans after the fall of the uprising. Sontag plans the second volume to document the years of Soviet domination of Poland between 1944 and 1989, and the final volume will carry her characters to the present time. It is probably fair to say that Marie Sontag, who describes herself as an educator, attempts to accomplish several didactic goals in her fiction. Thus, Rising Hope informs her young readers about the tragic realities of life in Warsaw during the German occupation and extols the bravery of Polish resistance fighters, especially the very young, presenting their deep patriotism and their willingness to sacrifice their lives for the freedom of Poland. At the same time, Sontag finds effective techniques to introduce her readers to Polish music and literature and the more distant past. So every now and then, her young characters may casually discuss the accomplishments of Frederic Chopin, or they may study for their clandestine lessons devoted to Polish poets such as Słowacki or Krasiński or to great freedom fighters such as Kościuszko and Kiliński. Sontag reinforces such miniature in- text lectures with a glossary, which identifies all historical figures and provides brief biographies and images.
While constructing the novel’s plot, Sontag effectively introduces fictional characters into historical sabotage actions carried out by some of the most famous Home Army fighters: Zośka, Rudy, Moro, and several others. Sontag focuses particularly on the role Polish scouts played in the struggle against the German occupation, both during the Warsaw Uprising and during the months leading to its outbreak. Her novel pays homage to the youngest fighters, who sacrificed their lives for Polish freedom. She movingly describes the death of seven- year- old Henio Dąbrowski, who works as a newspaper boy distributing copies of an illegal Polish newspaper, Informational Bulletin. Tragically, Henio becomes an object of interest to a couple of German policemen patrolling the streets of Warsaw. One of them “pointed his gun at Henio’s back. As if in slow motion, Tadzio [Henio’s older brother and the novel’s protagonist] saw the German pull the trigger. Blam! Only one shot. Henio’s arms flew up. His fine light- brown hair lifted in the breeze as his face contorted in pain. Henio’s legs went out under him. Women across the street screamed. The two policemen laughed, and then walked away” (138).
This tragic episode is one of a whole string of events that contribute to the growth of Tadzio Dąbrowski. In this classic Bildungsroman, Sontag allows her readers to follow Tadzio’s education and maturation process. The war deprives him of all parental support. His father leaves on a mysterious mission, and his mother and a trusted housekeeper are both arrested by the Germans and, after months of interrogations in the infamous Pawiak prison, are sent to Ravensbruck, a concentration camp for women. At thirteen, when the novel begins, Tadzio finds support from the leaders of his scout troop but refuses to engage in the scout actions against the occupiers. The readers witness his growth into a young patriot and a Home Army soldier.
To help her readers become familiar with both fictional and historical characters, Sontag lists them all in the glossary. This is an excellent idea, since some of the difficult Polish names may become confusing to English- speaking readers. However, one decision that the author makes in this regard is questionable. Her useful glossary offers her readers, in addition to brief biographies, photographic images of all characters: both historical figures and the fictional characters. So a question arises regarding whose pictures are used to illustrate fictional characters. If these period photographs depict some nameless victims of German terror, fictionalizing their lives and making up their names is disturbing. It victimizes them yet again. In future printings of Rising Hope, the author should consider deleting the photographs used for fictional characters and also replacing the map of Ukraine printed twice at the beginning and the end of the book with a historical map of Poland that reflects its pre- 1939 borders. A historical map of Poland would be very helpful for Sontag’s young readers.
Writing historical novels is not easy. The difficulty lies not in securing information about historical events, which are usually well documented, but in getting the seemingly insignificant details of everyday life right. Except for a couple of errors, such as having Polish peasants drive pickup trucks during the German occupation or not realizing that a couple of German Jewish boys who spoke only German and Yiddish would have linguistic difficulty in communicating with Polish children, Sontag is very successful in creating a picture of Warsaw during World War II. Rising Hope teaches its readers about living conditions in occupied Warsaw and presents the whole spectrum of societal attitudes toward the occupiers. The novel is populated not only by courageous freedom fighters but also by ruthless collaborators and informers who are willing to sell their compatriots to the enemy, knowing full well that they are sending others to their deaths just to gain financial advantages. The novel’s list of minor characters includes also Poles willing to risk their lives to save Jews, Jews who serve as soldiers in the Polish Home Army battalions, sadistic German soldiers, and some good Germans whose help saves Polish lives. Marie Sontag’s novel is an important addition to young adult literature in English.
Grazyna J. Kozaczka