Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Green Tomato Years

The Green Tomato Years / Gloria Kupchenko Frolick
Toronto: Williams-Wallace, c1985.
142 p.

Another book I just happened across, this short story collection is infused with the Ukrainian experience. Even the beautiful cover is a William Kurelek painting.

The author states that "it had been in my mind to write these stories for many years. They represent a fulfillment of a vow I had undertaken to write something as a tribute to my parents and brothers and sisters... ". And this is a heartfelt collection, a little uneven, but which really illuminates immigrant life in the Depression & war/postwar years, with special attention to her Ukrainian background.

I thought the first story, "The Counsellor" was the strongest. It is light-hearted, sincere, and engaging. In it, a young girl is working for a neighbour who needs some help around the house, as she's just had her second baby - at age 40. The perspective of this young girl highlights the quirks of adult behaviour and emotional upsets, and allows for a conclusion that isn't either maudlin or too jokey; it's just her report of what's happening. This story's tone and characters remind me quite a lot of Gabrielle Roy's Manitoba-set books. They have the same sense of innocence & nostalgia, and there are echoes of Roy's style. It also reminded me of the lightness in some of Olena Pchilka's short stories about girls in Ukraine.

Kupchenko Frolick also uses a child's perspective in other stories, but more often with a focus on their own experience. As the book progresses, the stories get less light-hearted and deal more with disappointments, sorrows, and fears. In the very brief "Mrs. Paush", the lack of reproductive options for women leads to tragedy.  In "Such A Nice Young Man", a young woman and her sister take their Ukrainian background as a given, but are far more focused on being modern young people. They realize their position in the community, however, when the son of the richest family in town tries to rape the younger daughter; her story is discounted and excuses are made for him (what is new?) This was another disturbing scene that has me wondering why the three books I've just finished all include this theme: is it because I'm reading books by women about women's experience in particular? Is it that writers today are trying to remove the shroud of secrecy around these kinds of experiences? It could be all of these, but the prevalence of this kind of violence is still sad to realize. 

The book closes on a melancholy note, with the description of a youth group going carolling on a Ukrainian Christmas eve. They are out in the country, enjoying their sleigh ride, and stopping in at various places to sing. It's peaceful, beautiful, and highlights tradition; yet the bittersweet nature of life comes through. Kupchenko Frolick seems to notice the undercurrents in all situations, and can't avoid mentioning them. Even when the conclusion of this story, and thus the book as a whole, ends on a positive note, it never feels saccharine, but grounded in daily life.

The nine stories included here provide a variety of perspectives, some very brief vignettes and a couple which are a bit longer. Each of them evokes the sense of a life now gone, in a specific place and time. I liked this collection and appreciated the variety of her stories, with their balance of sorrows and joys.



  1. I enjoyed your review of this collection of short fiction. It sounds worthwhile. Excellent review! Your thoughts about the book are well expressed.

    1. It's always interesting when you come across a small press, unknown book - it can turn out interesting or awful! Thank goodness there was a lot of good stuff here. It was really very interesting.


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