It was an honour to receive an advance copy of this book from the author.
Many of us in North America descend from people who came from Europe. We have had to learn to accept some of the traditions of the ‘old country’ while trying to figure out what are superstitions and prejudices which have no bearing on our own lives in the ‘new world.’ The physical, mental and emotional struggles of immigrants and their descendants are important ones to note when pondering the human condition in literature. And that what William Kowalski has given us in his well-crafted book The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo.
Of, course, darkness brought its own terrors, as any girl in this world of men knew all too well. They stayed together at all times, each one constantly checking to make sure the others were close by. They slept in shifts to ensure that no male dared try anything while they were asleep. they continued their prayers to St. Christopher, and they added added new ones to St. Jude, the saint of lost causes, for by now they had begun to understand that their entire way of life was lost to them, and the odds against them surviving this journey were very great indeed.
The strangest thing of all about this ship was that everyone was mixed together: Poles, Jews, Ruthenians, Bulgarians, Slovenians, Slovakians, Hungarians, Romaninas, Russians, Bohemians, Bavarians. They huddled together in tribes, dividing themselves naturally according to language and culture, glaring at each other with suspicion. Aniela had not known such a melange of humanity existed, nor that all these languages existed, either. It was proof that the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel was true. Some of these people she had never even heard of.
She had seen Jews before, but she had never been this close to one, let alone whole families of them; she found herself observing them curiously, wondering if all the horrible things the priest had said about them were true. He had lied about practically everything else, after all, including his own divinity. These Jews appeared to be serious grim people. They kept to themselves, and they regarded everyone around them with mistrust. But then, so did everyone else. All in all, despite their funny locks of hair that curled down from the men’s ears, and the strange clothing styles of the women, they did not seem so different.
Kowalski’s previous works are noted novels about the human condition, but this book for him is a deeply personal project from beginning to end. (See my Q&A with him about the launch of his crowdfunding project to get this book published last year.) This book brilliantly shows the life of his great-grandmother Amelia (and her legacy) while trying to build a life in America. But this is no rags-to-riches, and they-all-lived-happily-ever-after immigrant story that are so commonplace. Kowalski honestly documents how immigrants continually win and loose during their lives in North America. Yet even if the losses seem overwhelming and their traditions fade, the resilience of immigrants like Amelia continues, and continues to inspire.
It was the ruination of their American dream Iggy was staring at now.
Iggy had heart the American Dream lecture so many times as a kid that back then it was all he thought about. Anyone could make it in America if they just worked hard, everyone said – his parents, his uncles, his cousins, his grandparents, every his great-grandmother herself, who had lived to be ninety-eight years old. He had known her well, although he could barely understand her, since he didn’t speak Polish and had never had more than a passing acquaintance with the English language.
If you didn’t make it in America, there was something seriously wrong with you. You just weren’t trying. You didn’t appreciate the sacrifice your ancestors had made on your behalf, leaving behind everything they held dear.
Nope. If you didn’t make it, you were a failure – not just in business, but as a person, and in the eyes of all those who had come before you.
Iggy sighed and looked at the time on his cell phone. It was nearly time to start prepping for dinner.
While Kowalski may have borrowed story lines from his family and his Polish-American background, he has honestly documented many occurrences that are common for many descendants of European stock in America and brought them to the public domain. He has given certainly many of his fans some thoughts and discussions because of his plot about their own lives. This book is not only a great addition to literature but a glowing tribute to his family.
But what Zofia didn’t know was that Aniela planned on remaining unmarried and childless. In fact, she planned on having nothing to do with men whatsoever. The Prussian teacher had been only half right. It wasn’t just Plish men who were pigs. It was all men, everywhere. This had been her experience with just about every man she’d ever met. She would have liked to have been proven wrong, but so far it hadn’t happened. Her father was cruel to her mother. Her brothers were cruel to their sisters. Even the priest got so drunk on vodka sometimes that his hands seemed not to know what they were doing, and this was a man of God. All the girls in the village knew to stay far away from him when he was on one of his benders, or they might get invited back to his cottage for a private confession.
Aniela shook her head. She had to remember to leave these old thoughts behind. That priest, that teacher, her father, her brothers, hadn’t followed her to Ameryka, after all. She was safe from them now. And maybe the men of Ameryka would be different.
Besides, there were new challenges to deal with. It was all well and good to speak Polish in the streets of Black Rock, but eventually this business of English would have to be dealt with, or she would never succeed here – not unless she wanted to be an ignorant washerwoman all her life.
It was a true pleasure to dine upon The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo by William Kowalski. The many thoughts and experiences that Kowalski documents in the book are universal for any person of any European background living in North America yet never have been truly mention before. A great and unique piece of literature and a great tribute to Kowalski’s family.