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The River Midnight Paperback – October 28, 1999


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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Like the mythical Polish shtetl of Blaszka in which it is set, The River Midnight is boisterous, tangled with secrets, and startlingly generous. Told more as nine interwoven stories, Lilian Nattel's debut novel portrays Jewish village life in the 19th century as both dense and wondrous, something akin to Gabriel García Márquez's Macondo--with similar touches of magic realism. The novel uses a roughly nine-month period in 1894 as its framework, each chapter recounting many of the same events through the eyes of successive characters. Along the way we encounter the pettiness, charity, gossip, and customs that sustain the village, making its cramped life both full and frustrating. At the center of this whirl is Misha, the midwife, whose own pregnancy is one of the book's abiding mysteries, and who, despite her inscrutability, elicits a resolute affection from her fellow villagers: the men who have loved or admired her, and the women she has befriended, provoked, and, ultimately, redeemed. "I have to hold the secrets of the whole village," Misha explains, and as we learn of her girlhood friendships and adult loves, the twined network of those secrets becomes increasingly apparent.

The novel's ambitious fragmentation, while it may occasionally lead us down the same stretch of road, is undeniably effective--revealing the bottomless texture of mingled lives. And while the story's magic realism is a bit intermittent and tangential, Nattel more than compensates with lush, scrupulous detail and an unerring eye for the tension between self-interest and benevolence. In The River Midnight, she has created a world where flesh and prayer, accident and magic, coincide. --Ben Guterson --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Canadian author Nattel's debut novel poignantly and humorously evokes shtetl life by interweaving stories of four Jewish women in Blaszka, a turn-of-the-century Polish village. As vilda hayas (wild children), they romp in the woods. As adults, they bind their community together through their shared joys, sorrows, schemes and scandals. Married to the butcher and running his shop with wily efficiency, childless Hanna-Leah likes to bathe and dream in the Polnocna (Midnight) River. Restless Faygela has several children, the eldest in jail for helping her American cousin spread revolutionary ideas. After Zisa-Sara dies in America, her orphaned children are returned to her native village to be raised by friends. Looming over all is earth-goddess Misha, a strong, independent midwife who divorces her husband and refuses to remarry or reveal the father of her child. Blaszka plays host to Russians, Poles, Jews, non-Jews, players, peddlers, drifters and demons. As villagers travel, the reader also glimpses the streets of Plotsk, Paris, Warsaw and immigrant New York. Retelling each scene from different perspectives in fluid prose dotted with aphorisms and Yiddishisms, Nattel celebrates a culture that values scholarship, charity and individual freedom, its high-mindedness balanced by a coarse appreciation of human weakness. Details of food preparation, sexual attitudes, religious ritual and family routine produce a richly textured portrait of a small town. While her modest magic realism (evidently owing a debt to Singer and Aleichem) never soars, it beautifully captures a lost way of life and its enduring sense of community. Agent, Helen Heller. BOMC and QPB alternates; rights sold in Italy, Germany, Canada, U.K. and the Netherlands.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 414 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; 1st Scribner Paperback Fiction Ed edition (October 28, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684853043
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684853048
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #261,271 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Welcome! I'm Lilian Nattel, novelist and mom. I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in a 100 year old house that is high and narrow, in a kid-friendly, granola-eating neighbourhood. I write, dabble in photography, sew a bit, knit a bit, skate and swim. I love books and I love food but my husband is the cook in the family. My 1st two novels were historical fiction, & my latest novel, Web of Angels, is set right here in my neighbourhood in the 2000's. I always have more ideas than lives, but my two amazing kids keep me grounded. Books are a partnership between author and readers. I love the way the internet brings us together so the conversation can continue!

Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Georgene A. Bramlage on January 25, 2000
Format: Hardcover
An excellent first novel of a time and place that I've heard about too little. Although I am not Jewish, this book portrays a time and place from which my grandparents escaped. It was like hearing my grandfather speak of the countryside, political situation, and schooling. Now, I understand why he could read and write four languages (and church Latin!). A criticsim I've read is that some of the characters are not fully developed. However, isn't this the way with "real" life? A part of us always remains hidden from those around us...was Hannah-Leah's failure to have children due to something with her or with her husband? We'll never know and back then even a midwife couldn't know for sure. As for the angel characters, aside from a literary device, who's to say they didn't exist then and don't exist now? I found the environmental descriptions both imagined and real an integral and rewarding part of the story - I wouldn't want to enter that mikvah. The extensive bibliography also shows good research and some guidlines for more in-depth reading. For this sharing, a big thank-you to the author.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By R. Peterson on September 3, 2000
Format: Paperback
Nattel has taken the life in a tiny Polish shtetl before the Holocaust (and one that we come to understand disappeared during that horrendous period) and presents it to the reader through the thoughts and feelings of the villagers, both men and women. In the first half of the book we are introduced to the original four wild girls, Misha, the midwife; Faygela, the mother of many and wife of the village baker; Hannah-Leah, the butcher's wife; and the children of Zisa-Sara who had left the shtetl with her husband, only to die in a sweatshop fire in New York City and leave her orphaned children to return to her native home. The tales told through these women and men of this imaginary town in Poland are sweet, magical, aggravating, heart-wrenching, startling, and just about every other adjective you can imagine. Nattel is a marvelous story-teller and the reader is caught up from the first page in the lives and loves of these simple and wonderful people. Of particular joy to me was the sprinkling of Yiddish that Nattel uses throughout the book - it not only gives the right flavor to the tales, but since many of the words are reminiscent of my childhood in a Jewish-oriented community, they are like old familiar friends. They add a somewhat funny, appropriate, accurate and tasty spice to the stories of the interactions, friendships, secrets and ties that these people have with one and other. This is a wonderful book.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Cathy G. Plotkin on December 8, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I borrowed this book from my mother and read it in a week's time. For anyone whose ancestors came from Poland, it gives a personal glimpse into what shetyl life might have been like. These four women also have contemporary counterparts in today's world- an intellectual, a dreamer, a family person, and a professional (midwife). This book so touched my heart that I felt a strong desire to share with all my friends. To this end, I have started a book club with 16 people, and this book is our first selection. As my friends are reading it, they are pouring in songs of praise. The BEST read in a long, long time. Enjoy! It is a wonderful historically accurate novel.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Esther Nebenzahl on January 22, 2002
Format: Paperback
I.B.Singer, Peretz, S.Aleichem, D.Bergelson, Mendele all have portrayed shtetl life, with a tragic, comical, historical, or religious perspective. L.Nattel in her debut as a novel writer has given us her lyrical, colorful interpretation of the shtetl life in a fictional village of Blaszka (Russian occupied Poland), at the end of the 19th century. At the core of the story there are four characters (the "vilda Hayas," or "wild creatures), all of them female. The strong, independent Misha, a midwife who challenges traditions but remains much respected and loved by the community; Hanna-Leah the childless butcher's wife; Faygela the dreamer who wishes to become a poet and becomes the mother of many, and Ziza-Sara who emigrates to New York and has an early death. Around this core there is a myriad of remarkable characters: Emma and her revolutionary ideas, the rabbi and his fear of fire, Hayim the water carrier, besides the ever-present angels and demons of Jewish folklore.
Nattel has divided her novel by a "mekhitzah" (the walll that divides the men's section from the women's section in a traditional synagogue) and contrary to tradition women's perspective has precedence over the counterpart genre (excuse me, the "mama" comes first and then the "papa"). The final and third section is dedicated to Misha, the strongest character, the keeper of secrets who has become pregnant but who will not reveal who the father is. This structure is responsible for the novel's much criticized flaw: overlapping and repetition.
The author integrates her vast knowledge of folklore, traditions, magic, and with an enjoyable sense of humor brings back a community life which is now part of history.
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Format: Paperback
The River Midnight is Lilian Nattel's well-researched and honest depiction of women's life in shtetl Europe. From the "zogerin", the women's prayer leader to Misha the midwife dispensing her various potions to induce a pregnancy or get rid of one, the mythical town of Blaszka comes alive through the voices of its women. Although at times the story is a little uneven, with tidbits inserted that seem to have no relation to the plot (one of the women has an affair with a gentleman in Warsaw that seems as though it's excerpted from another book altogether), Nattel draws out her story in a fascinating, almost midrashic way, layering interpretation upon interpretation until, gradually, the whole picture emerges.
Perhaps the greatest flaw in this book is Nattel's attempts to weave a magical theme into the book, for example in the characters of "the Traveller" and "the Director" (and with one of the main characters being able to turn herself into a tree frog). These insertions, too, are a little annoying, and overall, they are too subtle to make any meaningful point. Luckily, they manage not to detract from Nattel's lively and evocative shtetl tale, so different from some others we've seen and heard.
Let's just say that Blaszka isn't Anatevka, the mythical town seen in the musical "Fiddler on the Roof", with its clean (if slightly dusty) streets and its cheerful, sexless cast. Blaszka's women and men are lusty and three-dimensional; they menstruate, they ejaculate. And Blaszka itself is muddy and strewn with filth and ruins.
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