Oh where do we begin? The rubble or our sins?
Bregalnica, Yugoslavia in the Autumn of 1953. Bussed to a government owned field and forced to harvest crops for the good of their country, three sixteen-year-old classmates stumble upon a cache of ancient Roman coins buried deep in the fertile soil. Their disagreement about what do with this incredible find sets in motion a chain of events that will forever change each of their lives, tearing their friendship apart at the seams and stitching it back together in a strange, foreign configuration that reveals hidden truths about themselves and each other.
For the poorest of the group, János Kelemen, the decision is easy. They must keep the coins for themselves and split their newly found riches. To him the coins represent a chance to escape a world in which the boys from Drobnik refer to him as a bolha, a flea, and act as if he’s “no better than dirt.” The son of a deceased gymnast who morphed into a highly skilled linguist during the Second World War, János is the most outspoken of the group, a trait that is unwelcome in the current climate of Josip Tito’s benevolent dictatorship. “Your mouth serves you best when it’s closed,” implores his mother Gitta, yet the boy is too headstrong and still too young to fully comprehend why.
Daughter of the local Komandant, Nevena Drobrica thinks that keeping the coins is a dangerous proposition akin to stealing and argues that if their actions were to be discovered that “no one” would be able to save them from a severe punishment. The lone female of the trio, she plays a difficult, awkward role. She’s in love with János, but clearly has tender feelings for the third member of their tight-knit group as well. As the teens continue their clumsy dance through adolescence it’s becoming increasingly obvious to all involved that the dynamic between them is shifting and that what once was crystal clear in youth has now become dangerously difficult as they stand at the precipice of adulthood.
Dorján Szabó is perhaps the voice of reason. He agrees with hiding the coins for the time being and revisiting the situation at later, calmer time. He and János have always been “two buttons on the same shirt,” an inseparable pair for as long as anyone can remember, and have been referred to from their earliest days by the village women as “the little engineers.” Their shared dream has always been to work side-by-side to finish their schooling, rise to this “most highly respected profession,” and help to rebuild their country. These coins and the possibilities they bring along with them threaten to blur this vision of their shared future, the only dream Dorján has ever aspired to attain.
János will abruptly disappear. Where has gone? Why has he left? Did he take the coins with him? Would he really be so cold as to leave his best friend and the girl he swore he’d wed one day behind to fend for themselves?
These are the questions that initially rise to the surface as Lundrigan sets the stage for a complex, taut mystery where no one single individual holds all of the pieces to the larger puzzle. As the novel continues to push forward however, it becomes clear that what she’s really interested in exploring is the damaged, fractured lives of the Bregalnica villagers that are most affected by this turn of events, and the way in which every decision that we as human beings make, no matter how seemingly inconsequential at the time, can have major, unforeseeable consequences far into the future. It’s a path she expertly navigated in her stunning novel The Seary Line, and she once again executes the idea to perfection here, peeling back the layers to slowly reveal to the reader the complete picture of a tragic, unavoidable history fraught with heartbreak, loss, grief, and guilt.
Where Lundrigan succeeds, where she’s always succeeded in fact, is in her ability to craft rich, absorbing, affecting characters so vivid that they appear to live and breathe in a time and space all of their own. Before János disappears you’ll acutely feel what it’s like to live in the skin of an angry, confused, poor teenage boy, after he’s gone you’ll share the devastating effects of his absence with his grieving mother and distraught best friend, and along the way you’ll become a willing participant in a story so engrossing that you’ll struggle to believe that it could possibly be a work of fiction.
Harrowing, yet also life affirming, The Widow Tree reminds us that no one can ever truly be good or evil, that we’re all the end result of a complicated, never ending series of choices — so many of which are sadly out of our control — and that maybe, just maybe, the people we think we despise the most might be the very ones we should be embracing instead.
The Widow Tree
By Nicole Lundrigan
Douglas & McIntyre