Book links prewar Polish town with modern Vancouver

The Girl Who Stole Everything by Norman Ravvin (Linda Leith Editions 2019)

All his adult life, Norm Ravvin has been immersed in the literature of his people, his country and the wider Western world.

Ravvin is an award-winning writer who has written three novels – The Joyful Child, Café des Westens and Lola by Night – a short story anthology – Sex, Skyscrapers, and Standard Yiddish – and a collection of travel essays – Hidden Canada: An Intimate Travelogue. He is the diadem in the multi-jeweled crown of Jewish scholars and writers of 21st century Canadian academia.

Ravvin’s immersion began with formal studies at the undergraduate, masters and doctoral levels in English literature and history, and Canadian and American literature. And then, over the years, he has tested other deep waters of religion and literature, ethics, Jewish literature, the Holocaust, cultural studies, film studies, creative writing and more.

With every entry into new areas of scholarship, Ravvin has shared the shining nuggets of his learning with his students and with readers.

Ravvin has taught at university since 1994 and for the last 20 years has been at Concordia University in Montreal, where he is now a full professor in the department of religion.

In addition to his teaching, where he has imparted his ideas, insights and his artistic and intellectual enthusiasms, Ravvin has been a prolific writer: literary critic, journalist, essayist, editor and novelist. Readers of The CJN know that he has written a monthly book review for more than a decade and a half. The totality of his oeuvre is too deep and too long to itemize here, if there is to be any space left over for the review of his latest work.

His most recent novel is an intriguing story whose key figures intersect with one another on a matrix of geography, time and relationship that joins the pre-Second World War Polish village of Radzanow and the east end of downtown postwar Vancouver.

The girl – actually a young woman – of the title lives in Vancouver. She befriends a young man in her downtown Vancouver neighbourhood. For separate reasons and at different times, both characters are drawn to Radzanow, where they meet a mother and her daughter. All of these lives are, of course, intertwined in mysterious ways, as Ravvin poetically suggests, like “the snarled yarn of an old sweater.”

The secrets to unravelling this snarled yarn in the present time lie hidden in past events in Radzanow and in Vancouver. Ravvin is superb in leading the reader through the complicated weave of clues, intimations and disclosures that ultimately connect the main characters and yield the novel’s elegant, full narrative force.

Of course, in spinning the interlaced stories, Ravvin effectively takes the reader on an excursion through the history of the places that are pivotal to the story, even as he provides pointed descriptions of the locales.

As it must, the fate of the Jews of Radzanow during the war is central to the unravelling of present relations among the characters. An abandoned house on the periphery of the central square of the village has been held and preserved zealously ever since the war’s end by one of the key characters, for someone she hoped would return to claim it. He never does. But in his place, his son Simon “returns” from Vancouver to the house and thus too into her life.

The house, preserved exactly as it was in 1945, in effect becomes a museum, documenting the architecture, the culture and the troubled, dangerous life that existed in Poland during the war. An archivist working with a film crew in Radzanow paints the larger picture for Simon. “And I can tell you a great deal about what happened here once the Jews were taken, their homes stolen, their livestock, and the place, like many other towns near to the Altreich – this is how the Germans called the territory newly included in their country – was repopulated by Germans from the west. The records show very clearly that this region of Poland was to become not only empty of Jews, but of most Poles as well.”

The inclusion of a film crew in the town square is one of the clever and effective literary devices in the story. It demonstrates Ravvin’s nuanced, gentle way of layering expositive details into the character of some of the story’s key figures. The film being shot in the town square takes place during the Second World War. Actors and extras are dressed in period clothing. Pretend Nazis newly occupy the town, while the “ghosts” of the men and women who lived during those years hover once again in the key characters’ lives.

“Ania’s mother stands at her window watching the film crew set up for what is supposed to be the last day of shooting in the old square.… Poles dressed as Germans. It turned her stomach. Sometimes it gave her a headache at the very front of her skull.… As she gazes out her window at the costumed Germans in the square, her fear – or was it simply adrenalin, excitement, the notion that she could do some good in response to the surrounding disaster? – returns and she feels as she did on her barefoot run back home.”

Ravvin’s story, however, does not fixate on the atrocity or sorrow of wartime Poland. He describes modern Poland, and Warsaw, a city “full of young people, international business types, new skyscrapers rising in view of what was once the ghetto.” And of course, as he develops the main Canadian characters, he deftly describes some of the streets, neighbourhoods and landmarks of Vancouver, “a place where you can do not much and feel pretty good.”

Eventually, the readers of The Girl Who Stole Everything discover that there is more than one girl who steals, if not “everything,” but matters of great significance nevertheless.

Ravvin, ever the insightful teacher, is telling us that we might sometimes look to the past to guide our present. At the very least, the past might help guide us to know how we might “do some good in response to the surrounding disaster.”