Bohemian Girl

  • Terese Svoboda
  • Bison/University of Nebraska
  • 208 pp.

Svoboda’s new novel is the Bohemian answer to Willa Cather’s My Antonia.

Reviewed by Grace Cavalieri

Terese Svoboda is the author of 12 other books, including poetry, memoir and translation. Bohemian Girl is a departure in subject and content from previous work, yet it continues in the tradition of literary activism and American picaresque. The angle of attack this time is not international disgrace between nations but a bitter remembrance of the fraying edges of the Civil War in the Plain states, mid-19th century. War’s destruction and disillusionment is compounded by antagonism with Native-American Indians.

The story’s protagonist renames herself “Harriet” after surviving captivity by Indians. In her escape, she inherits an orphaned baby and raises him, throughout the book, to boyhood. Tough and skilled, she faces rough geography, idiosyncratic strangers (including a Jewish prairie peddler, a chanteuse and a balloonist) and frightening emotional terrain. The Bohemian girl finds a small-town shopkeeper dead after a gun battle. Posing as kin, Harriet takes over the store and becomes a successful merchant trading the goods of the time. She is more than surprised to find runaway slaves coming and going from the cellar. After that, the fugitives are strengthened by Harriet’s provisions.

The most fascinating aspects of this book are the detail and minutiae of 19th-century life in the Midwest. Artifacts have energy in the hands of a writer who knows that objects are important icons of humanity. Svoboda is in the world of the Great Plains telling a story – part Huck Finn, part True Grit ― with reality shaped by insight. As arbiter of the past, Bohemian Girl restores history in language that captures and transports. This is the proof that this novelist is also a poet.

The accounting of Harriet’s adventures and travails furthers the fabric of women in literature and serves its evolution well. What I admire most is the portrayal of characters through language in which dialogue is imbedded in narrative. Action and thought are never torn apart. Braiding fact, matter and metaphor is Svoboda’s style.

At times, the connecting events are improbable, but the depiction of America during and after the Civil War is solid. As for the rest, the most important value in literature is that artists stay true to their imaginations. And Terese Svoboda has a good one.

Grace Cavalieri is a poet and playwright. She produces “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio, now celebrating 34 years on-air.

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