Thursday, July 28, 2016
The Grandmother (Babicka) - Bozena Nemcova
When I was young, my favorite book was Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. Alcott's tale about Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy went a long way toward forming my ideas about fairness, kindness, and how to get along in life. The Grandmother serves the same purpose in the Czech Republic. Published originally in 1853 -- 15 years before Little Women -- The Grandmother tells the story of an elderly country woman in northeast Bohemia who comes to live with her daughter and her daughter's family on a noblewoman's estate. Mr. Prosek, the son-in-law, works for the noblewoman, you see -- the house is part of his living expense. Grandma is immediately pressed into service as babysitter for the couple's children. But the old lady doesn't mind; in fact, she thrives on teaching the children everything from Christianity to superstitions and folk remedies. Everyone in the neighborhood loves her, of course -- even the noblewoman, who comes to believe that Grandmother is not only the epitome of Czech peasantry, but full of good ideas, to boot.
The novel is beloved in the Czech Republic, but I suspect most modern-day Americans would find it tedious. There's no plot, really -- just a series of vignettes following the Prosek family through the course of a year. I found it interesting because of my heritage, and because I was looking for examples of how pagan practices had survived in Bohemia. But there's very little action, and only a little conflict among the characters.
The biggest revelation is perhaps the story of Victorka, a madwoman who lives in a cave near the family's home. She went mad after conceiving a child out of wedlock, and the most interesting thing about it is how no one in the village condemns her -- either for becoming pregnant (rather than scolding the girl for her loose morals, the villagers consider the father a demon!) or for her treatment of the baby (which she delivers alone, and then throws in the river). Victorka's story is told with typical Czech practicality, and none of the melodrama that someone like Dickens would likely have employed.
If you have an interest in historical accounts of idyllic 19th-century family life, or of old Czech customs, I'd recommend checking out The Grandmother for its place in Czech literature alone. The rest of you should probably give it a pass.