An immigrant story for everyone

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“It was Ruth, though, who seemed the youngest and the oldest one there. Ruth, who had lost in one day that year more than anyone at the table would lose in a lifetime. And yet there was radiance to her face...”

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The Signal Flameby Andrew Krivak

Simon & Schuster. 272p, $26

A story of overcoming loss, rather than being “lessened or left behind” because of it, Andrew Krivák’s The Signal Flame chronicles three generations of the Vinich family, settlers in Dardan, a Pennsylvanian enclave for Slovakian immigrants. Krivák, a National Book Award finalist for his first novel, The Sojourn, tells this Slovak immigrant history with a careful attention to detail (where the craft of planing timber becomes the art of fashioning a piece of furniture, and the “old country” holiday meal celebration takes on a religious aura) that should resonate for many, if not all, descendants of immigrant cultures and nations.

The impact on the family of a soldier, Sam Konar, who is missing in action in Vietnam, drives the story. We meet his mother Hannah, brother Bo and pregnant fiancée Ruth, all grieving, wondering and worrying in their own ways. Whether, when and how they help one another find solace and closure is at the heart of the story.

Clannish tensions provide a complicating backdrop as Bo, the brother who stayed home to run the family’s milling operation, struggles with the uncertainty of Sam’s M.I.A. status while also trying to understand and reconcile a broader family history. This includes how the Vinich/Konar family came to acquire their land and how their lives were and remain intertwined with other local residents, especially the family of Sam Konar’s fiancée and the reluctance of Sam’s mother to embrace or support her. Bo also hears the voices of his deceased father and grandfather speaking to him about what he ought to do for himself, his family and his community.

The familiarity of Krivák’s language is an homage to how people, be they siblings, friends, sons and fathers, mothers and sons or sons and lovers, communicate with each other, by word or gesture.

Crucially important is the role faith plays in the novel, with the ministering of the parish priest, Father Rovnávaha, offering characters (and readers) the chance and necessity to consider their relationship to God as he presides, too often, at funerals: “And I realized...that the man of sorrow was still a man of faith, for he believed that what God had created had a beauty that would withstand all loss.”

Krivák’s writing reminds me of the direct and difficult exchanges between characters in Robert Frost’s narrative poems like “Home Burial” or “West-Running Brook,” where people, in considering nature and themselves, “[speak] of contraries” and how someone or something can run “counter to itself.” Gestures of connection or understanding, as when Krivák describes Bo “like his grandfather, [coming] to know every field, stand of forest, body of water, and mountain knoll that made up this landscape through which they passed,” carry respect for the immigrant’s honest day’s labor or the building of a home that will last generations.

The strength of Krivák’s writing is that it bespeaks both homage and familiarity. Indeed, the familiarity of the language and the story is an homage to how people, be they siblings, friends, sons and fathers, mothers and sons or sons and lovers, communicate with each other, by word or gesture: “For the next two years Bo came to know something of his father. Bo walked with him in the woods, walks on which there were long stretches of silence that Bo wanted to fill with questions but dared not.”

There are echoes, too, of Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It in the ways in which Krivák describes the community’s close connection to the landscape they inhabit, whether it be in surveying and homesteading a particular piece of land or knowing where and with which fly to catch the biggest brown trout in the river. The story of Sam’s military experience—told mostly through the eyes of his immediate commanding officer, to whom Bo and Ruth make pilgrimage—is told with a restraint and sensitivity that successfully maintain the drama of his M.I.A. status while focusing the story on the sorrow and loneliness of those who most deeply miss him: his brother, fiancée and mother.

Ultimately, it is the strength and resilience of these “inheritors of loss,” as Krivák calls them, that lead to the hopes and resolutions we are to consider as the book ends and the possibility of Sam’s return is described. A beautiful and elegiac history of pressing on, The Signal Flame asks readers to think of gifts given and losses almost impossible to fathom—and to acknowledge how and why such gifts may perhaps outweigh any losses.

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