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Review: The Widow Tree, by Nicole Lundrigan
Douglas and McIntyre, 2013. 310 pp. $18

In this marvelous, heartfelt novel set in the Yugoslavia of 1953, oppression comes in many forms. It’s not just that Tito’s long arm reaches from the capital all the way down to the village of Bregalnica. The villagers have seen the great leader only once, when his limousine drove through; on that occasion, he pulled on white gloves before shaking a few hands, hiding his face behind sunglasses.

Josip Broz, known as Tito, in 1961 (courtesy Digital Library of Slovenia, via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain in Slovenia and the United States).

That moment says much about the world of The Widow Tree, but the local is more immediate and pervasive. The Second World War may be over, but residual anger, hatred, and the urge for vengeance simmer close to the surface, and whoever challenges tribal loyalties does so at their peril. No one has forgotten anything, least of all old scores.

So it is when János, Dorján, and Nevena, teenagers whose school has been assigned a government field to harvest, dig up a shard of pottery containing ancient Roman coins, their find tests their allegiances. Nevena, whose father is the Komandant in Bregalnica, thinks they should hand over the treasure. János violently disagrees, insisting that they should keep it and tell no one. Dorján sees both sides. And in the end, because János is the most passionate and daring of the three, they decide to keep the coins; the boys bury them in the woods. Naturally, nothing good comes of this.

Lundrigan’s saying that it’s the kids who suffer most, growing up carrying inherited burdens, and the way she’s drawn her youthful triumvirate underlines the point. János and Dorján, friends practically from birth, both live with their grandmothers (their parents having been casualties of war or illness) and have long dreamed of becoming engineers and rebuilding their country. But János, who has a cruel streak, has always been a daredevil and a prankster; by the time he’s sixteen, he’s sensed that, contrary to what everyone says, betrayals destroyed his family.

Accordingly, he’s primed to rebel, and his anger is such that he won’t be silent. Dorján, of kinder nature but less confident socially, tries to tell his friend that expressing discontent will bring punishment, though he’s also worried that János is pulling away from him and has renounced their shared dream. The growing attraction between János and Nevena threatens to divide the friends even further, but, ever self-effacing, Dorján never opens his mouth to object. He sympathizes with his free-thinking friend, even shares his ideas, but is too scared to do anything about it. János is disgusted with him, but Dorján knows his limits; he’s the type whom authority figures pick on, sensing weakness.

As for Nevena, she’s in a difficult position. She admires and respects both boys, but she’s also the Komandant’s daughter, and she wants to be a good girl. Being female, she has fewer options than her friends–as in only one, marrying well–but Lundrigan complicates the picture. She makes the Komandant a doting father who intervenes to protect Nevena from her mother’s authoritarian small-mindedness. Consequently, Nevena may be forgiven for imagining that he’d be equally kind and sympathetic to everyone else.

But in Bregalnica, tender qualities are very carefully guarded. János’s grandmother, Gitta, understands how this appears every day:

To cut the silence, she flicked on the radio, heard the stream of good news. Always good news. Stories that would make a person feel better, if only they allowed them to penetrate their hearts. Gitta could not abide it, twisting the dial with a harsh snap of her wrist. That is not real. That is not real. But to whom could she complain? No one was left untouched, and no one even talked about the war anymore. They ignored the homes that were filled with new families. Forgot about the faces that were missing, or failed to notice the pale outline where shop signs had been removed and hastily replaced.

My sole criticism of The Widow Tree has to do with Dragan Dobrica, Nevena’s father. His desire to appear firm yet merciful, capable of kindness, conceals a vengeful spirit. I like that portrayal, but I’m not entirely persuaded by Lundrigan’s representation of Dragan to himself; I think he should have more difficulty, or spend more time at, negotiating between his benign and malignant selves.

Otherwise, The Widow Tree is a terrific novel, testament to the truth that for war’s survivors, the greatest casualty is trust.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.