The Pinsk Marshes are a wetland spanning southern Belarus and the northwestern corner of Ukraine. Historically, Slavs in wartime since the days of the Roman Empire sought refuge in the nearly impassable 300-mile-wide expanse. After the German invasion of Ukraine in the summer of 1941, Ukrainian members of the resistance, known as partisans, hid out there. Jews also took refuge in the marshes, including those who escaped during the Lachwa ghetto uprising of 1942, and some joined the ranks of the partisans.
This is the historical background of the novel A Boy in Winter, a tale of three days in November 1941, whose sweet romance belies the terrors of the holocaust that it describes. The boy of the title is Yankel, who, bearing his little brother Momik on his back, flees the Einsatzgruppen, a squad of Nazi military assassins, who occupy his Ukrainian village.
We are told the boy knows the area well – the nooks and crannies and alleyways of the town, the woods and creeks and hiding places of the surrounding countryside. So we anticipate an adventure of daring, courage, and love, and we hope that it is also a story of triumph. The narrative, however, unfolds in unexpected ways as the boy himself surprisingly fades from view, his presence transformed into a kind of silent, hovering lodestar for those around him – a sun around which the other characters revolve in their own agonized, uncomprehending efforts to cope with the upset of their world.
“The author has a lot of skin in this game: her grandparents were members of the Nazi party.”
The boy remains literally silent throughout the story, sometimes whispering to his brother, though we are never privileged to overhear those words, sometimes gesturing and grimacing warily to the unfamiliar adults who surround him. Only midway through the novel does he speak aloud, when he is discovered by a German road-builder and forced to disclose where he’s headed. “Bolota,” he answers – marshes – and speaks not another word. Thus, with a single sound, he becomes a symbol: a purveyor of all the hope of his existence, a trigger for all the danger and dread that accompany this harrowing odyssey of a tale.
The author, Rachel Seiffert, although disclaiming any “resemblance to actual persons” in the book’s prefatory material, has in fact admitted in The Guardian that she based the character of Otto Pohl – German road builder and engineer — on a “rare account of a righteous German,” Willi Ahrem, who was “unable to countenance fighting for Hitler.” Seiffert stumbled upon this account in her research for another novel – and, in fact, the author has a lot of skin in this game: her grandparents were members of the Nazi party, a circumstance that has caused her no end of soul-searching.
These details of the author’s biography add a dimension to the novel that enriches and complicates the reading – and, in fact, brings me to the heart of what I found to be the most pressing question in evaluating and understanding this book: Should a work of art be dependent on its historical, social, or political context for meaning? I’ve always believed otherwise – a novel should stand on its own, in a very pure sense, before it can be considered great, or even good.
“Everything depends on the epilogue, a masterpiece of unraveling and resolution.”
But with this book, history changes everything. I discovered two competing interpretations between my first and second readings – a dark, ambiguous reading with little, or no, knowledge of the history; a more cinematic, triumphant reading within historical context. Both are beautiful takes, and I think equally valid – and so skilled in the rendering, that I can’t help but wonder if the author intended two interpretations from the outset.
Everything depends on the epilogue, a masterpiece of unraveling and resolution. What a finely wrought, delicately imagined work this is. I look forward with great curiosity to the whims and devices of the author’s next novel.