Historical fiction is my favorite genre-both for intriguing reading and for bringing a personal dimension to events that are usually portrayed in a dry, factual way. James Conroyd Martin's book, Against a Crimson Sky, is the best of all possible worlds: a well-plotted, well-written, fascinating account of a strong and unique heroine. The setting in Poland is the piece de resistance: my ancestors, while not of the nobility (minor or otherwise), were Polish, and Martin's book brings to life a time and place that has been difficult for me to imagine.
Against a Crimson Sky continues the story, begun in the author's first novel, Push Not the River (St. Martin's Press, 2003) of Anna Maria Berezowska, an ancestor of Martin's friend, John A. Stelnicki. The Stelnicki family kept Anna's diary, written in her teens, sealed in wax for several decades and only recently translated it from the original Polish. Set in partitioned Poland in the 1790s, some of the events in Push Not the River seem hard to believe: Anna's dangerous winter journey and Zofia's promiscuous behavior among others. As the story develops, however, both the individual characters and the historical events taking place in Poland bring this important era in Poland's history vividly to life. As the book closes, Poland has been erased from the map of Europe by those who feared her Third of May Constitution, the first democratic constitution in Europe. Anna's stormy early years take a turn to what she hopes will be a quiet life with her handsome suitor, Jan Stelnicki.
Against a Crimson Sky picks up where Push Not the River ended. Anna's diary did not continue past 1794, therefore Martin had to imagine Anna and Jan's life over the next 20 years. His imagination is more than equal to the events laid out for him in the diary: the emotion and turmoil of the first book are not abated in the second. Anna becomes Jan's wife and is mother to three children, only two of whom are Jan's. A strong Polish woman struggling during bitter and lonely times, Anna does whatever is necessary to keep her children safe from those who would manipulate or harm them. Her cousin Zofia's eyebrow-raising exploits add another bittersweet note to the story, and provide a glimpse into the life of the Polish szlachta (minor nobility) as well as some of the Polish social customs of that era.
Poland's situation at the turn of the 19th century provides a riveting setting. It is the time of Napoleon, who plays on the hopes and dreams of the Polish people, promising much in return for their support of his ambitious plans. Hoping for a return to an independent Poland, Jan joins those who fight for Napoleon. Ultimately, his sons participate in Napoleon's ill-fated march to Moscow, where Poland's hopes of liberty are crushed along with Napoleon's reputation.
While Anna and Jan's story will captivate any reader who enjoys historical fiction, Poland's story is even more compelling, especially for those of us whose ancestors originated there. The ideals and strength of these determined people, who vowed never to lose their national identity-and did not, through many years of partition and expatriation-will resonate with anyone of Polish ancestry.
The Polish-American community has recognized Martin's contributions. The American Institute of Polish Culture recently chose him as a Gold Medal recipient, to be awarded in January 2007. But even beyond that, James Martin is a fine writer, whose skills in his first book are even more evident in his second. Whether or not he chooses Poland as the subject matter, I eagerly await his next book.