An Eccentric Immigrant

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka, was published in 2005.

Short History of Tractors in UkranianInternet searches for “a book with an eccentric character” lead me to this novel. I downloaded the eBook from the Seattle Public Library and read it on my phone. I’m really liking that Libby by Overdrive app.

About a third of the way through the book, I decided that it was more about an immigrant than it was about an eccentric character. So I switched the book’s Category.

The story takes place in Peterborough, England. Nadezha and her older sister, Vera, are concerned about their 84-year-old, widowed father, Nikolai, who has announced his intent to marry a Ukrainian immigrant named Valentina. Valentina is a flamboyant 36-year-old woman with enormous breasts and an alleged degree in Pharmacy. Nadezha and Vera rarely agree with each other, but they both question the motives behind this upcoming marriage.

Nadezha is the story’s narrator.

Nadezha and Vera’s parents lived a frugal life in Ukraine, under Stalin’s oppression – mending rather than replacing, making rather than buying – until saving enough money to immigrate to Britain. When Mother died, Nadezha and Vera fought over her possessions. The sisters became bitter enemies, until Valentina brought them back together.

Nikolai doesn’t deny that he’s marrying Valentia so she can become a British citizen. Her visa runs out in three weeks, and she’ll have to divorce her Ukrainian husband before she marries Nikolai, but Nikolai is determined to help all suffering Ukrainians.

Nadezha reminds Pappa that Ukraine isn’t the same as it was when he left, as a refugee from World War II, fifty years ago.

Nikolai Mayevskyj is a man filled with love – love for Valentina and for Ukraine. He thinks with his heart. Even when Valentina leaves for Ukraine, without saying goodbye, with the 1,800 pounds he gave her, Nikolai knows she will go home, divorce her husband, return to Britain, and marry him.

Nadezha and Vera secretly contact the Home Office together, trying to stop Valentina’s return. Their father must never know what they’ve done.

Vera is using Valentina’s example to support her anti-immigrant stance. Nadezha can’t understand how an immigrant can be so opposed to immigration.

Nikolai is an engineer and a writer. Before he came to England, he and his fellow writers would write poetry in Ukrainian, defying the Soviet ban on all languages except Russian. He worked in a tractor factory, because it was safer, under the watching eyes of the Soviets, than working in an airplane factory. Now, Nikolai is writing his master work: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. He’s writing it first in Ukrainian and then translating it into English.

Excerpts from Nikolai’s book, which is about exactly what the title says it’s about, appear in the novel.

I actually found Nikolai’s book more interesting than the novel.

Actually, I didn’t like this book. The characters were one-dimensional caricatures, like they were walking into a sitcom. The book wasn’t funny, however. Valentina’s treatment of Nikolai bordered on elder abuse. The flashbacks to the genocide from the Soviet and Nazi occupations of Ukraine were gruesome.

And yet, the book obviously wants to be a comedy. Nadezha is a professor of sociology, and is constantly angered by people thinking she’s a social worker. One of the many broken down cars in the story is named Crap Car, and so on.

I’m sure there was more to Valentina’s side of the story than just her being a shallow gold digger, and I wanted to hear it. I wanted something to suggest that Nadezha might be wrong.

If you want to know the history of tractors, skim through this book until you find the excerpts. Otherwise, I don’t recommend it.

  • A book about an immigrant or refugee
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