Before you begin to read The Sky Unwashed, you think you know what you are in for. Both jacket copy and preface explain that the novel deals with the Chornobyl nuclear accident. The author, born and raised in Chicago, is a bilingual, first-generation Ukrainian- American who has traveled often to Ukraine to teach and to visit friends and family in Chornobyl (her spelling). She has based this fictional work on first-person memories of those who remember the 1986 nuclear disaster. I opened the novel reluctantly, recalling other accounts of nuclear mishaps, some in our own country: leakages, tumors, freakish effects. What kind of catalog of death and destruction was I in for?
But this novelist soon surprised me. Zabytko takes her readers off guard right away with her vivid sketch of place and people. Starylis, a tiny country town just down the road from Chornobyl does not seem to belong to a time as recent as 1986. The town’s citizens still live in ancient thatched-roof cottages; their families have lived in such places for generations. They grow their own vegetables. They milk their own cows. The old women (the babas) sweep the church steps every day. Bread-baking is a community affair; clay ovens are out of doors, and folks gather for the bread-baking. Everyone knows the gossip about everyone.
At first I was charmed by this sort of musical-comedy village, in which everyone is preparing for a wedding. Can’t you hear the overture? Act One, Scene One: the townsfolk of Starylis gather for a wedding. However, Starylis is not quite so simple. These people’s lives are intimately linked with the nearby nuclear plant. Zosia and Yurko met working together on the electronics section of the nuclear power plant. Yurko was Zosia’s supervisor, and they had become lovers on the long lonely nights when they should have been preoccupied with the instruments on the generators that connected to the turbines of the nuclear reactors. They married when Zosia was pregnant with Katia.... Zosia and Yurko are not the bride and groom, but guests at the wedding. Soon it develops that almost everyone connected with this marriage is also connected to the Chornobyl plant. Where’s the groom?’ someone calls. And when he appears, he is a robust young man, blond with watery eyes, and in work clothes from the Chornobyl plant who puts down his lunch pail and runs toward the bride. Even the priest who is conducting the wedding, Father Andrei, works as a janitor at the Chornobyl plant. On the festive occasion, his hobnailed work boots, polished for the service, peek out from below his gold brocade vestments.
After the marriage ceremony with its elaborate liturgy, the bride and groom perform another sacred duty: they go to the war monument, where the bride places her wedding bouquet, a new custom practiced throughout the Soviet Union after the Great Patriotic War. The younger villagers display this loyalty, the older generation does not. Somehow all the differing strands of Ukrainian life, new and old loyalties, new and old technologies, are interwoven during this wedding pageant. As the story unfolds, still another character is introduced: the Blessed Virgin, who appears to the elderly Marusia in a dream. Trapped by black clouds, with windstorms kicking up around her...[Marusia] saw her neighbors’ homes uproot and roll away like tumbleweed. Then she saw the Virgin Mary arising out of a white mist, dressed in blue robes and a long black veil, coming toward her with Her arms out, ready to catch something or someone.
From the beginning a tension exists between Marusia and her pretty daughter-in-law, Zosia. Marusia, a woman of faith who habitually prays and makes the sign of the cross, disapproves of the lax morals of her daughter-in-law. Zosia, who has had four abortions, decides to accept a pregnancy (and marriage) only because the last abortion was so painful. Her motives have a Mae West practicality; goodness has nothing to do with it. Now, however, Yenko and Zosia are married and the parents of two children. Together with Marusia and their neighbors they are caught up in the disaster of Chornobyl.
So it turns out that the town of Starylis is no Brigadoon. The primitive character of the town, its 19th-century ways, no longer seem so charming. Starylis in the year 1986 is at the mercy of modern technology, not merely because accidents will happen, not just because of the Soviets, but perhaps because the dream of modernity has failed. The Chornobyl disaster, a totally modern apocalyptic event, races out of control. Also it is irresponsibly handled (so far as its effects on plant workers and their families are concerned) by bureaucratic bungling. Already in her 70’s, the frail Marusia, others of the Petrenko family and their neighbors are driven out of their homes by the Chornobyl disaster. The air is heavy with contamination; the taste of metal is on every tongue. First the people are told to stay in their homes and take iodine pills. Next they are carted away by a mandatory government evacuation. Yenko, who was in the plant when the disaster occurred, has been hit harder than the rest of his family. Taken to the city, trying to cope with his illness and their own exposure in a strange city hospital, Marusia and her relatives are up against deadly threats to survival. They are also threatened by being kept ignorant of their predicament.
What rescue is possible for Marusia, marooned in a large and confusing public hospital with her doomed son (injured beyond hope inside the Chornobyl plant) and his angry, self-preoccupied wife? Must this story be one of unfolding death? Can any ray of light pierce through this kind of grim and irreversible terror?
Against all odds, Zabytko’s story takes a surprising turn. After her son Yenko dies, Marusia is one of a circle of elderly women who return to the contaminated town. Less than a year after the Chornobyl incident, in defiance of government orders they take up the tasks of ordinary living, trying to coax new life from the miserable earth. Clearly these women are life-givers and life-bearers. Though old and weak, they aim to transcend the devastation of their native place.
And there is still more transcending as this rare first novel comes to a close. I won’t reveal exactly how Irene Zabytko draws hope out of a hopeless time with small but plausible incidents. She does.
Is this what faith is about? Seeing past the immediacy of death into some kind of life that cannot be touched by human destructive power? Zabytko makes us think so. There is a simplicity, a naïveté in her writing, that makes us believe such people as Marusia must truly exist. Such loving souls mourn not only for their own lives but for those of their cows and their gardens. From time to time while I was reading, I remembered that Tolstoy was converted by the strong Christian faith of the peasants he knew. All that seems plausible in Zabytko’s Starylis. But I do not think the author herself is naïve. Far from it. She does not excuse the nuclear perpetrators nor exonerate their actions. Even so, her point is not one of political critique. Young as she is, Irene Zabytko has understood the human suffering of her own Ukrainian friends and relatives, and she has made a kind of sense out of it. This story of faith she writes is like the drawing of a child who has witnessed and survived a war but still can make a crayon picture of sky and clouds and sun.
The joy of this book is muted, it is intermittent, it is deeply shaped by sorrow. At the beginning of the novel, Zabytko uses a citation from the Book of Revelation. And there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp...and the name of the star is called Wormwood; and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter (Rev. 8: 10-11). Very appropriate, I thought. Later on, however, another text came to me, wanting to be heard as the right interpretation of The Sky Unwashed. It was Mt. 5:4, Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.