Friday, May 20, 2011

Vaclav & Lena - Hayley Tanner

Vaclav & Lena is the debut novel of Haley Tanner. And I must admit, it's probably one I wouldn't have noticed without a recommendation. So, Jess - thanks - because I really, really enjoyed it!

Vaclav & Lena is set in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Both characters are Russian émigrés - children 10 and 9 years old. Vaclav has a fair grasp of the English language but is keen to master it. His mother Rasia is loving and kind, determined to make a better life for her son. Lena's life is much different - she has no support at the place she calls home, often has nothing to eat, does poorly in school and tries to blend into the woodwork in an effort to hide. Rasia does her best to mother her as well.

Vaclav and Lena share a love of magic and dream of the day when Vaclav will be a famous magician and Lena will be his stunning assistant. When Lena disappears from his life under never discussed circumstances, Vaclav is heartbroken. Until the day seven years later when their paths cross again....

Vaclav is such an earnest, eager, spirited child. He sees the positive in everything around him. He dreams of the future. The barriers placed in his way do not stop him or deter him. This character touched me so much and literally brought tears to my eyes.
"Rasia looks at Vaclav, holding these dollar bills, smiling his goofy smile. Most people do not really mean their smiles, most of the time. For most people, their smiles are a lie, a trick, or a promise. Vaclav's smile is just a smile, and he always means it."
Two years ago I worked in a very small library. Every day we were open, a young boy, his sister, mother and baby brother came in after school. They were recent immigrants from an Eastern bloc country. The oldest boy had attended school in his home country, his language carried an accent and mangled syntax, he was awkward socially, but tried so hard to fit in. It broke my heart to see him rebuffed by the other children. I can only imagine what his mother felt. She and her husband had chosen to seek a better life for their children.

Rasia's love for Vaclav...
"As she watched him walk out into the big American crowd, under the big American roller coaster, she felt the world spinning wildly away from her, and she sat and cried because she was happy and sad that he did not look back, because of how much she loved his little body, and his awkward, cowlicky head and that tiny rib cage, and the way that he knew, already, to take a girl's hand if she was afraid."
Tanner has perfectly captured what I observed. The dialogue, feelings, emotions, situations and settings all evoke and capture the experience of a new citizen from a child's and parent's view.

But there is much more to the story - it is a tale of tenacity, love and hope. Vaclav & Lena is a rich, poignant narrative that will capture you from first page to last.  Loved it! I look forward to reading what Tanner writes next.

Read an excerpt of Vaclav & Lena.


bermudaonion said...

This book sounds fantastic! We used to live in a university town so there were always new students in the schools who couldn't speak English well. The kids there never paid any attention to it because it was so common.

Sarah M said...

This sounds beautiful and painful. Like it would be a very emotional read.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this looks incredible but also incredibly hard. Because of where we are (metro area), we have about 26 countries represented with about 100 families in our school. While most families speak two languages at home, many of our families are here at universities for a year or two simply for researching purposes and have very limited English. It's interesting to see the make up of each family and the ways in which languages really play out in family and social dynamics. Like Kathy said, though, most of the kids in our school speak "preschool" and don't really notice the differences in language when a new student arrives.

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) said...

Woops! That comment, above, wasn't supposed to be anonymous!