Book review: ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ by Olga Tokarczuk

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

Janina Duszeijko is a retired bridge building engineer who lives on a mountain plateau near the Czech Republic. She believes that all animals deserve to live out their natural lives; she has an obsession with life, especially animal life. She doesn’t eat the flesh of something that was alive, and she doesn’t accept the argument that hunters have to control the populations that nature is no longer able to.

That puts her at odds with her hunting neighbors with their hunting clubs and hunting pulpits. Pulpits built high off the ground for the express purpose of making it easier to kill the animals that are drawn to their death by the food supplies spread nearby. “Pulpits??”

While we don’t know Janina’s exact age, we do know that she is becoming concerned that she is losing some of her abilities to age. Yet she is well able to make her rounds to inspect the summer homes that are left in her care each winter. As a retired engineer, she has many capabilities, though her frequent tirades regarding the animals has earned her the reputation of being a little off. Add to that her sincere belief in astrology, and that firms up the area perception. It’s an incontrovertible truth: everything is determined by its position in time and the universe. If you tell her the date and time of your birth, she can chart your future, even your time of death and in general, the cause. We also discover that she hates the name “Janina.”

What is left unexplained, however, are the several murders that have taken place in the area lately. Janina’s theory that the animals are simply taking revenge on the area hunters only confirms the local belief that she is a crazy old lady. I’m going to leave the story there and offer several quotes from the book that illustrate the author’s skill. To tell this story, much description is required. Often readers just want the author to get on with the tale. With this author and this story, description works.

• “They carry the air that Prague was breathing a short while ago, maybe Berlin too.”

• “Low, dark clouds had been scudding across the sky all day, and now, late in the evening, they were rubbing their wet bellies against the hills.”

• “Someone has made us badly. This is why our model should be replaced.”

• “I was as weak as a potato sprout grown in darkness in the cellar.”

• “… one of those languid hawks that hover in the sky like the Holy Spirit … “

• “Children are soft and supple, open-minded and unpretentious.”

• “Winter mornings are made of steel; they have a metallic taste and sharp edges.”

• “For people my age, the places that they truly loved and to which they once belonged, are no longer there.”

Off and on throughout the book, the transcription of William Blake’s poetry takes place. It is occasionally quoted. Near the end of the book comes the quotation that serves as the title: “Drive your plow over the bones of the dead.” When you read the book, you will be able to decide if it is appropriate.

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