Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead an Unusual Treat

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009/2018/2019)

By Olga Tokarczuk

Riverhead Books, 275 pages.





Here’s a book that took a very circuitous path to winning the 2018 Nobel Prize for literature. You’ve probably never heard of it and unless you read Polish, you could not have read it until quite recently. Author Olga Tokarczuk has written nine novels and is one of Poland’s most beloved writers, but this work was originally published in 2009. It wasn’t translated into English until 2017, and there was no U.S. edition until last year. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead­–the title comes from William Blake–is a short book, but not necessarily a quick read. That, as it turns out, is a good thing. You will wish to take your time plumbing the mind of its main protagonist.


Drive Your Plow takes us to southwest Poland, a stone’s throw from the Czech border. It is there we meet Janina Duszejko and heaven help you if you call her Janina, a name she detests. She is an odd duck on many levels, including the fact that she’d never harm a waterfowl. She was once a construction engineer, but now she’s one of the few year-round residents in the Table Mountains and spends the dark months as a caretaker for summer homes, teaching English and geography a few days a week at the local village, casting horoscopes, and filing complaints with the local police about hunters. She’s a vegetarian, an informal naturalist, an animal rights activist, and a full-time pain in the ass. We hear her voice throughout the novel and, to emphasize her eccentricities, Tokarczuk capitalizes words that wouldn’t require it within the context. Duszejko suffers from “Ailments,” has bouts of “Anger,” and has a “Theory” about everything. She’s the sort that doesn’t bother with formal names–either because she can’t remember them or thinks her nicknames are better. Thus, her neighbors sport handles such as Oddball, the Writer, and the Professor. The young, bald woman at the secondhand shop is Good News and a former student who drops by for help translating Blake is Dizzy (given name Dionizy).


She is known to most as simply “Mrs. Duszejko,” though we know nothing about a husband, the only hint of him perhaps being a cryptic remark. When explaining why she, a non-practicing Protestant, doesn’t care much about Catholicism, she remarks, “For some time I shared my bed with a Catholic and nothing good came of it.” Her remarks on a variety of subjects are laughout loud funny. Like her “Theory” on beauty: “The aim of evolution is purely aesthetic–it’s not to do with adaptation at all.” Or why anger is a good thing: “Anger puts things in order and shows you the world in a nutshell. Anger restores Clarity of Vision, which is hard to obtain in any other state.”


Mrs. Duszejko is angry a lot. She’s angry that her “Girls,” her two dogs, have disappeared and the police aren’t doing anything about it. She’s angry that a rich neighbor is raising foxes for fur, that quarrying is eating away at the mountain, that the world is divided into “useless and useful,” and above all, that local hunters are blasting away at any animal they see. When she finds the carcasses or bones of the animals they have slaughtered, she collects and buries them. Then she files a formal complaint with the police, though she thinks they are idiots. Then again, the only people she doesn’t think are idiots are Dizzy, an entomologist named Borys, and maybe her Oddball.


A bigger problem in the area begins when Big Foot, her name for one of her neighbors in the “idiot” category, is murdered. She is positive the deer have killed him to avenge his butchering of a member of their herd. Her proof? The horoscope she calculates and the presence of hoof prints around the murder site. Crazy, huh? Then how do we explain other victims found under similar circumstances?


Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a very unusual book. It is very literary, yet Duszejko seems to be–to use another waterfowl reference­–as crazy as a loon. Duszejko may abuse capital letters, but she’s clearly very smart. Maybe her “Theory” on interjections applies: “…every single Person has their own expression which he or she overuses or uses incorrectly. These phrases are the key to their intellect.” Her own intellect begs the question of how she can take seriously her own theories about astrology or murderous animals, or how she doesn’t seem to realize what a crank she is. This is a rare book in which humor, murder, and eccentricity comingle. Perhaps the only thing twistier than how these three elements resolve is the route taken by Olga Tokarczuk on her way to the Nobel Prize.


Rob Weir


The Giver of Stars a Departure for Jojo Moyes


The Giver of Stars (2019)

By Jojo Moyes

Penguin Random House, 400 pages.




Most American readers know Joyo Moyes from her 2012 bestseller Me Before You and its follow-ups After You (2015) and Still Me (2018). Each way featured Louisa Clark, once the caregiver to a rich quadriplegic. It thus come as a surprise that her latest, The Giver of Stars, is set in Kentucky–in the 1930s. The title is borrowed from an Amy Lowell poem.


Its central character, Alice Wright, is English, but she meets a handsome Yank, Bennet Van Cleve, when he and his father visit England. In a whirlwind romance, she agrees to marry him and move to America, a place that sounded like an exotic escape from her hectoring parents. She had something like New York City in mind, but would settle for Lexington once she gets a good look at Baileyville, a coal town in Appalachia where Bennett’s father is something of a law unto himself. He is also a widower and Alice hadn’t planned on him living under the same roof as she and Bennett, or being treated like an intruder.


There’s nothing much she likes about Kentucky, a place inhabited by self-righteous prigs that could have plucked from Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street. Alice’s every move is judged and found wanting by everyone from the local pastor, Van Cleve’s housekeeper Annie, and Bennett himself. To make matters worse, her marriage has yet to be consummated; Bennett is a wimpy (and limp) lackey for his old man. To use an old Appalachian expression, Alice’s fate is what happens when you buy a pig in a poke.


Alice’s fate brightens when she meets Margery O’Hare, a free spirit who locals also judge, though Margery couldn’t care less. Margery is helping set up a Works Progress Administration program endorsed by Eleanor Roosevelt that seeks to put books and magazines into the hands of rural readers. In this neck of the woods that means saddling up a horse and riding up the ridges and into the hollows. It also means visiting some places where potential clients are more likely to have a rifle in their hands than a welcoming cup of coffee.


Margery and her WPA coordinator forge ahead, stock a library, and launch a four-woman delivery crew: Margery, Alice, and two gals barely out of high school: the salty-tongued Beth Pinker and Izzy Brady, who suffers from low esteem because polio left her with a brace, a short leg, and a limp. A Giver of Stars is essentially about feisty women who seek the support of likeminded individuals in a tradition-bound one-company town. Two men play heroic roles: Sven Gustavsson, Margery’s lover, and the ever-helpful Fred Guisler, whose wife left him years before. It’s not easy being unconventional in a hidebound place where elites maintain power by sowing distrust and fear.


A Giver of Stars eventually branches off to be a murder mystery, a look at eco-destruction, worker exploitation, family feuds, sexual ignorance, union-busting, cowardice, resilience, dark secrets, romance, and rural poverty. At times the novel is so focused on female power that it slides down anachronistic hills. I really liked the character of Sophia Kenworth, an African American woman with a disabled brother who takes charge of organizing the book collection. Alas, it’s not a believable character. Although Sophia’s role is kept quiet, I doubt that such a secret would hold for long or that it would have been very safe for Sophia to be in said role in Jim Crow Kentucky. (The Ku Klux Klan was active in the state.) Moyes’ logic is especially thin given that everyone connected with the library attracted attention to themselves and Baileyville is presented as gossip-ridden. Some may also take umbrage to the novel’s shift from female independence to the suggestion that most of life’s problems can be overcome by the love of a good man.  


This is the historian in me speaking, though, and many readers will probably overlook the unlikelihood of what they read. Like all Moyes novels, A Giver of Stars is an easy read that presents tough subjects in palatable and hopeful ways. In case you’re wondering, the Pack Horse Library Project was a real thing that lasted from 1935-43–back in the days in which the federal government actually made an effort to connect with ordinary people. It eventually served more than 100,000 Kentuckians. So, file this one under historical fiction/non-fiction.


Rob Weir




Admit It: You Need Mr. Rogers Today!


A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

Directed by Marielle Heller

Sony Pictures Releasing, 109 minutes, PG



Tomorrow is Election Day. Anxiety levels are at all-time highs. Need to chill? Here’s a film that will help you do it. In my lifetime, there have only been a handful of people I’d label as WYSIWYG authentic: Pete Seeger, the Dalai Lama, Bernie Sanders, and Fred Rogers. Of these, Rogers might be the only one on which most agree.


I dodged A Beautiful day in the Neighborhood in the cinema. I had just seen the 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor and didn’t think much more could be said. In a sense, that’s correct. Beautiful Day is not a Rogers biopic. Tom Hanks got nominations from various groups including the Oscars, for his portrayal of Rogers, but as a best supporting actor. Hanks was born for the role of Fred Rogers, one he inhabits with eerie ease, but his was indeed a supporting role. Rogers is not the film’s raison d’ĂȘtre.


Beautiful Day is based on a 1998 Esquire feature written by Tom Junod, whom the movie fictionalizes as Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). Junod and Rogers really were friends, though liberties were taken with their relationship. Lloyd is presented as a man so consumed by anger and cynicism that not even his supportive wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Wilson) or a newborn son can crack his funk. Imagine the hackles raised when Esquire editor Ellen (Christine Lahti) hands Vogel an assignment to write 400 words on Mr. Rogers for a spread on American heroes and makes it sound like she’s tired of his act and that he’d better not screw it up.


Lloyd has been mad ever since his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) left his wife as she was dying of cancer, the latest in a string of infidelities. Lloyd hasn’t spoken to him in 15 years, which doesn’t bode well when Jerry plans to show up at his daughter’s wedding. Lloyd wants to stay home on the grounds that Lorraine (Tammy Blanchard) has been married twice before, but Andrea convinces him he must go. Not the best idea! Lloyd ignores his father’s second wife, Dorothy (Wendy Makkena), and gets into a fight with his father that leaves Lloyd with cuts on his nose that are highly visible when he flies from New York to Pittsburgh to interview Rogers.


Vogel is prepared to give free rein to sarcasm, but he badly underestimates Rogers, his cheesy puppets, low-budget props, and silly characters like Lady Aselin and Mr. McFeeley. Each probing question prompts Fred to express concern for Lloyd’s well-being. Lloyd is sure this is part of Rogers’ shtick and wonders why Rogers doesn’t know he’s an investigative journalist who doesn’t do puff pieces. Imagine his surprise when Family Communications CEO Bill Isler (Enrico Colantoni) tells him that Fred has read his work and requested him for the interview. Lloyd is more baffled still when Rogers dismisses all talk of being a hero or a secular saint. A it transpires, Fred likes “broken people” wants to be Lloyd’s neighbor. Well take me to the river and wash me down! A whole lot of healing is about to happen. Vogel’s 400-words became 10,000 and the cover of Esquire.


Some of the movie falls into Hallmark TV, territory, but like Lloyd, I found myself being sucked in. Because. Mr. Rogers! He was so genuinely calm, honest, and concerned that one’s private Walls of Jericho crumble. Not everything went down as it’s portrayed on the screen, but Hollywood fiction doesn’t cheapen the fact that Fred Rogers was simply a decent human being.


Several other thoughts. My message to all Tom Hanks haters: Get over yourselves. He’s no Orson Welles, but he’s never tried to be. Hanks is what he appears to be: an actor who prefers uplifting roles to guns, hookers, and attitude. I liken Hanks to Starbucks coffee – not the greatest you’ll ever experience, but consistently reliable. A shout-out goes to Chris Cooper, who is one of the most under-appreciated actors of our times. He plays Jerry with the right balance of toughness and search for redemption. Susan Kelechi Wilson is radiant, even when we want her to be less understanding and kick Lloyd in the kiester. Maryann Plunket also does a nice job in her small part as Fred’s wife, Joanne.


Some reviewers criticized sequences of car trips, flights, and cityscapes that unfold as if they are sets from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood before toggling to reality. For me, they enhance the simple (though not simplistic) magic of the Mr. Rogers universe. I could have done without Hallmark moments that evoke 1950s family values tableaux. I am also critical that the film gives a drive-by to the fact that Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister. His faith was central to who he was.


Couldn’t we all do with a heaping serving of Fred Rogers right now? Bring it. You’ll grin despite yourself.


Rob Weir


Note: Noah Harpster appears in the film as Lorraine’s new husband, Todd. He also cowrote the script with Micah Fitzerman-Blue.