So I wasn’t 100 percent successful in sighting this book. After failing to read the coolly designed cover from a distance, I had to approach the woman on the platform of the uptown R, and she very kindly took the paperback out of her purse so I could look it over. Not everyone would be so open with a stranger and go so far as to tell me that her girlfriend’s friends’ in England were all abuzz about Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Penguin, 2005), a story of two feuding sisters who try to stop their father from marrying a beauteous Ukrainian immigrant 50 years his junior.
For reasons unknown to me, our review of this first novel never ran. Its reception at two other major U.S. review publications (Publishers Weekly and Kirkus) was not ecstatic, so it’s interesting to note that Tractors made the short list of Great Britain’s prestigious Orange Prize and beat out Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal to take the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize at the Hay Literary Festival.
Something just didn’t take on this side of the Pond, and it might have something to do with Lewycka’s biography. Born in a refugee camp in Germany after World War II but raised in England by her Ukrainian immigrant parents, she obviously drew on her background for Tractors (the main characters, Nadezhda and Vera, are first-generation Ukrainian immigrants living in the modern UK). It’s tempting to argue that her characters are just too "English," a loaded word for many contemporary writers who hail from the United Kingdom. Does it mean you’re white, black, yellow, or mixed? A Prostestant, a Muslim, or a witness for Jehovah? Americans typically shy away from debates of identity, which irks me given how much we are made up of immigrants. Why haven’t we produced a Zadie Smith (see her White Teeth) to address our 21st-century cultural sprawl?
Now you’ve got me ranting. Suffice to say I’m curious about how Lewycka handles the immigrant thread, and now that Salinger’s short fiction has disappointed me (see Caulfield Rescued from Brooklyn Book Shelf), I’m anxious to look abroad.