Based on the diaries of a real life person, Push Not the River tells the story of Lady Anna Maria Berezowska. Anna’s tale is one of coming of age in a tumultuous time in Polish history.
When the young Anna is orphaned, she is sent to live with her Aunt Stella, Uncle Leo and cousin Zofia until she is old enough to claim her inheritance. While there, she meets their neighbor Lord Jan Stelnicki and they quickly fall in love. But Zofia has already set her sights on Jan. Her jealous interference leads to devastating consequences for both Anna and her Aunt Stella.
The events of Anna’s life occur against the larger events happening in Poland. Concerned about the events of the concurrent French Revolution inspiring the peasants to do the same to the Polish aristocracy, a new constitution is passed. This gives the peasants more rights and benefits. But some of the greedy aristocracy are not happy with the concessions, fearing an eventual loss of their own power and wealth. At the same time, Poland is being threatened by it’s three powerful military neighbors, Austria, Russia and Prussia. These nations see Poland as ripe for the plucking and are eager to claim Polish land for themselves.
One of my reading goals this year is to read more new-to-me authors and to read more books with international settings. So when I saw Push Not the River available for free, I thought, why not? Plus, as a lover of history, I was interested to learn more about Poland. Aside from recent history, I know little of Poland.
I found the history of Poland in the late 1790’s fascinating. As a nation, the Polish people were more progressive than their neighbors in views of class which is seen in the Constitution they passed. This Constitution was actually inspired by America’s. The Polish patriots were wise enough to see that the time of feudalism was ending and cared enough about their poorer citizens to try to help them.
Too, I found it fascinating to see the political placement of Poland during this time. Catherine the Great was ruling Russia, Austria and German were at the height of their military might and of course, the French Revolution was in process. America was a new country. It’s interesting to view Poland against the backdrop of these other world events. It gives a much better context of the events which occur in Push Not the River. In fact, these events were in actuality the death knell of a nation, though they did not know it. Eventually, Poland was overpowered by their stronger neighbors and ceased to exist for around 125 years. Learning a bit more about Poland and its history has also given me a broader understanding of current day Poland.
As for the characters of the story, I didn’t find them as interesting as the historical background itself. Anna Maria just seems too good to be true. She survives great losses; family deaths, rape, an attempt on her life, threats, imprisonment etc. Not to mention, the constant betrayal she experiences at the hand of her conniving cousin Zofia. Yet, she sails gracefully through everything. She shows no signs of the trauma, which even one of these events should produce. Though Anna is often naïve to Zofia’s manipulations, when she is aware of them, she lets them go. Anna is quick to forgive Zofia and rarely confronts her.
Zofia, for her part, does claim to love her cousin. But she loves herself more, which is what leads her to work against Anna’s best interests many times. She makes an excellent nemesis and I often wondered if she truly cared for her cousin. However, she does help Anna when it benefits her and she does act sacrificially at the end.
All the other characters really act as a support to the stories of Anna and Zophia. Though Jan’s support of the patriots serves to give the reader more insight and historical details to the events occurring during all the political upheaval.
Push Not the River is very heavy on the narrative and lighter on dialogue. As interesting as the narrative is, I wish there had been more dialogue between the characters. Also, the book runs around 550 page is length. This is a longer book than I generally like to read, but it moved along at a regular pace and didn’t feel overwhelmingly long.
Overall, I am glad I read Push Not the River. I found the historical details both educational and interesting. But this is the first book in a trilogy and I’m not entirely sure I will continue. Other reviewers claim Push Not the River is the best of all three books. And I’m not sure I want to dedicate my precious reading time to finishing the remaining 968 pages of the series.