Raising Girls in Bohemia: Meditations of an American Father
- By Richard Katrovas
- Three Rooms Press
- 234 pp.
- Reviewed by Dana Norris
- December 4, 2014
These compelling, interwoven essays explore the concept of “otherness.”
Richard Katrovas is many things: a poet, professor, husband, author of several books, and a man who calls New Orleans, Kalamazoo, MI, and Prague all home. He is not: a woman, in jail, Czech, transgender, African American, a young girl, gay, a young man (any longer), or really at home anywhere that isn’t a car in motion.
Katrovas’ latest book, Raising Girls in Bohemia: Meditations of an American Father, is a series of essays shaped to create a memoir. The essays combine to form an exploration of otherness. Katrovas examines the various places he lives even as he admits that the only place he ever felt at home was in the backseat of a stolen car, sitting quietly while his father drove, sipped beer, and shot at jackrabbits as they skittered past the headlights.
The essays provide various and fascinating points of entry. The worst restaurant in the world; a mural painted by prisoners in New Orleans; a young girl’s hair; the birth of his third child; King Lear; and a marble image of Stalin’s face rumored to reside at the bottom of the Vltava are all used as ways into Katrovas’ life story.
In his introduction, he states, “Most of these essays were composed over eight years, and in them I opine unashamedly on a range of topics about which I know little.” He is wrestling with conflicts he cannot overpower, pursuing answers to questions that do not have answers. But he is nonetheless relentless in his exploration.
He interrogates himself and others, pushing forward, searching for meaning, attempting to use language to tease out truths that cannot be easily spoken. This causes him to define something by what it is not. For instance, on being an American living in Prague, he realizes that “one cannot know, truly, what it is to be American until one has achieved some form of intimacy with what is not American.”
He spends a great deal of time considering what it is to be a woman; more specifically, a young girl spending half her time in Prague and half in America. He finds that “my daughters are more physically free in Europe, and more rhetorically free in America.”
Katrovas works to see life from their point of view, his three beautiful daughters who can speak Czech fluently and who seem able to move through the world with a freedom and grace he wants to protect with all his might.
Yet he strives not to be “the traditional distracted father, the kind who regards his children from a safe physical and psychic distance, the kind who basically subcontracts the raising of children to his spouse, and simply sits at the center of his household as a fount of authority and abstract values, as God Almighty’s gendered representative within the family unit.”
Katrovas is at his best when analyzing populations he isn’t a part of. His prose can, at times, become coolly academic in its analysis, but then he will all of a sudden rush directly toward his subject with a passage so poetic and deeply felt that it cuts to the heart.
He ends an essay on a troubled transgender student with the thought that “Those with the courage to lean against the sharp edges of life, who other themselves because they have no choice or because to choose otherwise would be the death of joy or of its merest possibility, lead us, our bloody sockets bandaged, to chalky cliffs, to the sound of distant crashing waves, and there they trick us into living.”
This sentence is a gift that we are the richer for having received.
Because of the book’s structure, some bits of biographical information become repetitive. We hear several times that Katrovas is the father of three girls, that he is no longer married to their mother, that he is raising them with his ex-wife in both America and Czechoslovakia, that his father went to prison, and that he spent a portion of his childhood living in poverty in North Carolina.
At certain points, he imbues these facts with fresh details, deepening our understanding of events. At others, he appears to be introducing himself to new readers.
Katrovas is often self-deprecating, describing himself as “a son too self-absorbed, too childishly self-absorbed to realize the opportunity he was squandering by hating his father with preternatural intensity, wholly unaware that hatred was self-loathing.”
He does not spare himself, or us, from hard questions. How did he become a professor of poetry when he, by all statistics, should have gone to jail as his father did? How did he father such exceptional young women when he’s unsure of how to comport himself wholly and honestly with the opposite sex? How can he account for the social injustice present in our systems of government and education?
Are any of his efforts actually helping?
In the essay “Private Gold,” Katrovas writes about the birth of his third daughter. He and his wife did not know the sex of the baby until delivery, and when he saw that she was female, he thought of little girls, of the power of reproduction, of the power of the vagina, of Russian nesting dolls, and, finally, “I thought of the final tiny figure that is somehow the point.”
Dana Norris is editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine and founder of the Story Club franchise. She teaches at StoryStudio Chicago and has been published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the Rumpus, the Tampa Review, and other places.