Monday, August 2, 2010

Book Review: Eva Underground

Title: Eva Underground
Author: Dandi Daley Mackall
ISBN: 978-0152054625
Reading Level: Young Adult
Genre: Contemporary
Theme: Historical Fiction
Binding: Hardcover
Length: 256 pgs
Published: 2006
My Rating:

Synopsis: In 1978, a high school senior is forced by her widowed father to move from their comfortable Chicago suburb to help with an underground education movement in communist Poland.

**The following review may contain SPOILERS**

My Review: I know the last few posts have been about movies so it's time for me to change things up a bit and review a book that I recently finished reading. Eva Underground is a young adult novel that is quite different from the norm. Or at least in my reality it is. I know the book was published back in 2006 but it seems in recent years that most YA novels are focused on vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and fairies (you get the point). While I love a good paranormal/supernatural story like the next person, I must admit that it's beginning to get hard to weed out the diamonds among all the coal (like that analogy? hehe). Sometimes I just need a break from the monotony. Eva Underground not only provided that but also took me back to the days when all I did was read historical romance and fiction.

The book takes place in communist Poland, 8 years after the Gdansk riots of 1970 (which you find out was the year that Tomek's older brother was tragically killed). Americans Eva and her father, a college professor, are first introduced at a Czech border crossing. While they sit with tension in the unheated car, waiting for the line to move, we get small glimpses of Eva's life back in Chicago and the events that led to her current life change. Right off the bat we know that being uprooted from everything she knows is not her choice, but her father's. She yearns to be back in Chicago with her best friend and boyfriend and close to where her mother is buried (not a big spoiler since you find that out within the first few pages of the book.) Her father, Professor Lott, has an agenda-- to meet up with Father B. (who is in charge of this underground movement) and teach/train oppressed yet eager Polish students so that one day they can make a stand against a government that wants to keep its people uneducated and ignorant. Once they finally do cross the border (not without difficulty) they meet Tomek, a 19 year old Polish teen who reluctantly takes on the job of escort and translator for the American professor. Just like Eva, he does not really want to get involved with the underground movement but does because of the money he could earn so that he can buy books and go to school. When Tomek and Eva first meet, they obviously don't like each other. Tomek thinks Eva is spoiled and rich since her father is a college professor and Eva resents Tomek because, well, he represents everything that is foreign to her.

The first thing I liked about Eva Underground is the third person narrative that switches perspectives between 17 year old Eva and 19 year old Polish Tomek. Up until the Twilight series, I was never a big fan of first person narration, probably because I had my brain trained to reading romance novels, mythology, historical and fantasy epics,-- all of which are mostly written in third person. Okay, and I will admit that I tend to be nosy-- I like to know what's going on in other character's heads and their views throughout a story. Once I started getting into YA literature, I noticed a trend of first person narration and I learned to actually enjoy it. (I'm always up for a challenge and looking for new ways to expand my mind.)

Anyway, the shift back to third person narrative in Eva Underground was a nice change of pace for me. The author, Mackall, did a great job with changing perspectives between the two lead characters as well as giving us as the reader good introductory descriptions into Eva and Tomek's livestyles and backgrounds. By the third chapter I felt emotionally invested in both of their causes and couldn't wait to see how things progressed.

Like I was saying before, I was exposed early to historical romance and fiction novels but will admit that this is the first story I have read about communist Poland in the 70's. The author does a great job at giving just enough details and situations to express the severe opression that these people were experiencing. You don't have to be an expert on the time period or place to get the general mood of the story.

There is one part in particular that I loved in Eva Underground that reminded me of one of my favorite scenes in the movie A Walk in the Clouds (starring Keanu Reeves). In order to get out of doing dish duty (sounds stupid but there are months in Poland where they can't get soap so they kill germs by washing dishes in boiling hot water) Eva convinces Tomek to take her with him to his family's home to help pick plums for the harvest. When they arrive, everyone seems to accept her but Lukasz, Tomek's cousin. They have all gathered to help pick plums from the family orchard before a terribly ice storm hits. With the help of little Stash (Tomek's other cousin) Eva adapts well. She becomes so fast that a competition arises between Eva and Lukasz to see who can get the most plums picked the quickest. This is almost exactly what happens in A Walk in the Clouds only it is Keanu Reeves' character that is the stranger and he must help pick grapes, not plums. Beings that A Walk in the Clouds was released in 1995, I have to wonder if the similarities are purely coincidental or if the author had a little inspiration? Hmm...

Now to the things that bothered me which ultimately is the reason I give this book a 3 out of 5 star rating. The first thing that nagged at my conscience was Eva's father's decision to force his 17 year old daughter to a communist country that is obviously in turmoil. What in the BLEEP was he thinking??? I get that he is still mourning the loss of his wife and living day in and day out in a house full of memories must be like putting salt to a wound. I get that Eva started acting out after her mother's death and perhaps he thought that a change of scenary would do her some good. But to take your daughter out of her last year of high school and drag her to a place where they not only hate their own people but they hate Americans? Don't get me wrong, I am all for helping others. I know sometimes you have to risk your own life for the greater cause. But I just find it either completely negligent or very naive on Professor Lott's part. What solidifies my point even more is the fact that he doesn't even know Polish! I could see if he was fluent in Polish or a similar language, but he actually had to depend on Eva to translate (she can pick of languages quickly) when Tomek was not around.

Another thing that left me with some questions was this supposed hatred between Tomek's father and Josef Krysa, Captain of the militia. The author states a few times in later chapters that Krysa is the "hated enemy" of Tomek's father. I wanted to know why. I had a feeling it was in regards to the death of Tomek's older brother years prior but nothing is really developed. I know not everything in a story has to be spelled out but Captain Krysa obviously has a vendetta against Tomek's family. And when the author stated more then once that both older men are mortal enemies, I had to wonder why or how it started. Mackall kind of leaves you hanging and I found it a little disappointing.

Lastly, I kind of felt that the love story between Eva and Tomek was...underdeveloped. Throughout most of the book you have Eva thinking of her boyfriend back in Chicago and about halfway through the novel she even tries to make a break for it (You'll see what I mean). Tomek, on the other hand, thinks of Eva as being spoiled and selfish. Since he feels this way through most of the book (he thinks it constantly) I was waiting for some big blow up between the two where Tomek finally tells Eva how he feels, but it never comes. Obviously his opinion of her changes, and vice versa, but I guess the whole sudden love thing between the two felt...unreal. Okay maybe unreal is not the best word to describe it, but I think a couple of more chapters to develop their feelings for each other would have satisfied me more.

Eva Underground is a good book if you are reading it for the purpose of educating yourself on this turbulent part of history, whether you are a teenager or adult. I think the author did a great job from a historical perspective as well as giving the reader sufficient description and character backgrounds to reel us in. While the story starts off strong, I think it loses a little steam in the romance department as well as a few underdeveloped story lines such as the bitter feud between Tomek's father and Captain Krysa. Despite my pickiness, I don't regret reading it and would even go so far as to say that if I was teaching history instead of English, I would probably add the book to a mandatory summer reading list.


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