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A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian    by Marina Lewycka order for
Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
by Marina Lewycka
Order:  USA  Can
Penguin, 2006 (2005)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

Marina Lewycka has combined her knowledge of elder care and Ukrainian immigrants in England to produce a delightful first novel. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian tells the story of sisters Vera and Nadezhda (or Nadia), and their 84-year-old Pappa, Nikolai Majevskyj, two years after their mother Ludmilla dies. Like Lewycka herself, the Majevskyjs are immigrants from Ukraine who were lucky enough to be allowed into England from a German refugee camp after World War II. They were lucky because had they been returned to Ukraine, they would most likely have been imprisoned by the Soviets.

At the beginning of the novel, the sisters haven't spoken to each other since their mother died, shortly after Vera talked her into changing her will in a way that Nadia disagreed with. Now the crisis of their father falling in love with a 36-year-old divorced illegal immigrant from Ukraine forces them into an uneasy truce in an attempt to rescue him. Valentina is a gold-digger who is sure that marrying Nikolai will make her rich and legalize her immigrant status.

The younger daughter, 'Peacetime Baby' Nadia, and her ten years older 'War Baby' sister, Vera, find themselves in increasingly complicated situations as Valentina and her son take over their father's house and life. Their forced cooperation with each other and the resulting increased communication between them help them to become close in a way they've never managed to attain before. The narrator, Nadia, learns to see her family in new ways as she pieces together new information from their past.

Along the way, we also learn about the development of tractors in Ukraine, as Pappa writes his history. I found this very interesting, having grown up with a father who was employed all of his working life by an American tractor manufacturer. The difference between the history of tractors in the U.S. and Nikolai's account is striking. This is a minor part of the book, however, and the main focus is on this family, what they endured in the past, and how they manage this new crisis.

Although this book has a serious subject matter, it is told with humor and affection. We even manage to feel sorry for the horrible Valentina, whose predicament, while self-caused and bizarre, is fraught with difficulty for her and her son. But Nadia is the star. Her care of her difficult old father is tender and constant.

Lewycka has written six non-fiction books on aspects of elder care, and her expertise shows in her depiction of Nikolai and his problems. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, tractors, problems of the elderly and all, but the family story itself and the sisters' relationship are the glue that holds it together and makes it wonderful.

Listen to a podcast interview with Marina Lewycka at

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