An Old Polish Christmas by Catherine Czerkawska
|The Amber Heart on Kindle - Polish & Christmassy|
It is a big doorstop of a book but then it's a big story. Epic. Romantic. Heart rending. When one of my previous agents sent it out, she relayed a letter from an acquisitions editor who said that she had stayed up all night reading it and weeping. They didn't acquire it though. Poland was a non starter as a setting. Now if it had been Russia ...
No point at all in telling them that Eastern European borders have been so fluid and so deadly, in consequence, that this novel, set firmly in that part of mid-nineteenth century Poland called Galicia would, if set in the same physical place today, have to be in the Ukraine.
I grew up with a Polish father and an English/Irish mum. Christmas was one time of the year when we became thoroughly Polish, and celebrated in the Polish way, with a Christmas eve dinner and Polish carols like this one Lulajze Jezuniu, that always made my late dad cry. Then, on Christmas Day, we did it in the English way as well. Nothing like having the best of both worlds.
But really, in order to celebrate in the Polish way, you need to be in Poland. I spent a couple of Christmases in Poland when I was in my twenties, teaching EFL in Finland and then when I was working for the British Council at Wroclaw University.
|Wojciech Kossak - one of the family forebears - was the artist. |
I used the setting - and perhaps even these characters - in the novel.
I still remember wandering through a big indoor market in Warsaw, with it's peculiar scent of horseradish, smoked cheese, apples. I remember the extreme cold, the snow and the plentiful mistletoe for sale on the street flower stalls.
On Christmas Eve my father's cousin and her partner took me to a house in the Zoliborz suburb of the city where the Kossak family - relatives by marriage - still lived. The Christmas Eve meal was traditional and extraordinary: twelve small but delicious 'courses' with beetroot soup, lots of fish but no meat. Lots of flavoured vodkas too. And makowiec - a luscious Christmas cake made with ground poppy seeds and rich yeast pastry. Straw was placed under the tablecloth and if you 'drew the short straw', woe betide you because your life would be a short one as well. To be honest, I think they made sure that all the straws were fairly long!
|Great Uncle Karol Kossak: my favourite uncle.|
|I think this is actually signed by one of the Kossak family. Note the Galicya name|
It was a busy and blissful time.
But one thing that I remember perhaps more clearly than any other, was a friend of the family taking me around the walls of the old town of Warsaw, a perfect mediaeval town, destroyed by the Nazis not by overhead bombing, but its buildings deliberately and maliciously blown up from the ground, to prevent the people from ever returning.
|Warsaw from the air, after the Warsaw Uprising.|
|My dad in the snow, in Galicia, Poland.|
All the same, if you read it, I think you'll see what I mean when I say that it always seems to me to be a Christmas novel - or perhaps I mean that it's a good long Christmas read. And for seven days beginning 24th December, you can download it onto your Christmas Kindle for the bargain price of 99p or 99c in the US.
And can I take this opportunity to wish all Authors Electric readers a very happy holiday season - and a new year that brings you all you could hope for.