When I first chose Poland by James A. Michener as one of my books about that country, I was fascinated by the idea of discovering the history of a country through the eyes of a few…and intimidated by the 600+ pages. I certainly didn’t think it would be compelling enough to keep me up at night—but it was. The only problem now is trying to review it in a way that does it justice. It covers nearly 1,000 years of history. That’s a lot of information to distill into a few hundred words.
This book begins in 1981 during a political and social crisis in Poland due to communism. One of the protagonists, Jan Buk, is one of the main farmers trying to get descent prices for the food grown. The other protagonist Szymon Bukowski is the Poland government official who’s come to deal with the riotous farmers. If you know anything about the fall of the Soviet Union, you have an idea of what’s going on: farmers weren’t producing enough, their food was being bought by the government for too little, and they couldn’t afford to pay for repairs and new farming equipment due to the newly unionized factories. Communism was breaking down and Jan Buk was trying to win concessions for his fellow farmers.
The story then rewinds to 1240 A.D. and follows Jan’s ancestors—they’re peasants—and Szymon’s ancestors, poor landed gentry or knights. There’s one more main family: the Lubonskis who are magnates, which means that they own most of the land and therefore control Poland (in this case, they’re also nobility with a title won from the Catholic Church for good service).
These are the major periods of Polish history discussed in the book (each with a new set of Buks, Bukowskis, and Lubonskis):
- 1240-1241: The Mongol invasion of Poland and how the Poles (with the help of our three favorite—fictional—families) beat them back
- late 1300s: War with Teutonic Knights
- 1600s: Wars with Sweden
- late 1600s: Ottoman invasion
- late 1700s: Poland Partition
- 1920: Whole and free Poland
- 1939: German occupation
- 1945: Communist Poland
Reading a book like this for my country of the month might be my new thing because I learned so much, more than I ever do with a regular history.
As I mentioned, the big three are the Buks, Bukowskis, and Lubonskis. While these are fictional, most everybody else are a real, historical figures.
The Buks come from obscurity and end up turning themselves into something great. They’re lives had been formed by centuries as peasants. While the magnates and even landed gentry became more influential and richer, the peasants typically bore the brunt of it. They had very little and labored all the time. In fact, this is one of the main themes. In the end, it’s a descendent of these Buks that stood up against communist Poland and, ultimately, Soviet Russia.
The Bukowskis were, for the most part, weak, Szymon being one of the notable exceptions (and in his case, he was an illegitimate Bukowski and more of a Buk). In fact, during World War II, one of the Bukowskis, a half uncle of Szymon, sold out to the Nazis. While Szymon fought the Nazi’s in the resistance and spent time Under the Clock and in a death camp, his half uncle was selling his soul to the devil.
The Lubonskis were magnates and had massive amounts of power. They helped keep the central government weak so that their own power was undiminished. This resulted in the partitioning of Poland. However, some Lubonskis were avid patriots of Poland, especially the one that helped re-establish Poland as a country again and aided the resistance during World War II. Strangely, the Lubonskis don’t make an appearance in 1981.
The book begins and ends in 1981 with the 1,000 years of history between. What’s fascinating is the way that Russia and Germany comes up throughout the story. During the Mongol invasion, the Teutonic Knights (because Germany didn’t exist as a nation) aid Poland. Then the two are fighting each other. The point is that as the country between Germany and Russia, Poland is constantly battling one or the other.
Then Germany and Russia, with the help of Austria, slowly divide Poland among themselves in the 1700s until Poland’s completely gone. Then the 19th century arrives and Germany occupies the newly established Poland for a few years, then Russia does the same thing, but for a few decades.
The writing is both funny and inspiring. Michener can’t change history, so he just explains how things were—are—in a way that’s both interesting and devastating:
“[Very rich people] with brains make a great effort to hold on to every penny they have while preaching to the general population that freedom and dignity and patriotism are possible only under their protection; in this way they elicit the support of the very people they hold in subjection.”
And there’s the humorous:
“The history of a daughter is a drama in three acts. One: from age three to nineteen you will kill any man who touches her. Two: from age twenty to twenty-five you hope that one at least of the young men nosing around will prove satisfactory. Three: from age twenty-six on you pray that any man at all, even a train robber, will take her off your hands. “
I loved discovering Poland through the eyes of those who experienced it. This book makes no excuses or apologies, just tells you how it was, and how it continues to be, with the hope that Poland can pull herself into true freedom (it was written before the Iron Curtain fell).