The Forgotten Girl

Written by Heather Chapman
Review by Waheed Rabbani

In 1906, in the small town of Durliosy, Poland, sixteen-year-old orphan Stella toils at her hard-hearted brother’s farmstead. She is required to perform demanding farming chores, housework, look after the children, and—even during winter weather—manually roll a cart of produce to the market, miles away, all without any appreciation. Stella’s brothers, Wiktor and Stanislaus, had emigrated to America, and Stella longs to leave as well. When Wiktor sends her tickets, papers, and money to join him in Baltimore, Stella absconds for America. Wiktor finds Stella a factory job with lodgings in Fells Point. Although Stella finds the harsh industrial working environment no better than what she’d left behind, she is hopeful for her future. She doesn’t meet Stanislaus, nor sees much of Wiktor, except when he needs money, for he’s into heavy gambling. Stella begins to improve herself and make friends, until one day Wiktor does something foolhardy to disrupt their lives.

Although this novel has the usual conflicts, twists, and turns, it’s a pleasant surprise to learn in the Author’s Note that the plot is based on her great-grandmother’s story. While unrecorded, the account was kept alive, orally, by family members. It’s apparent that Ms. Chapman did considerable research to bring out the lives of the characters during the 1900s in Poland and America. The narrative reads like a diary in which the blanks are appropriately filled in. Stella’s austere life on the Polish farm, her arduous journey to Hamburg, and the voyage to Baltimore are all shown vividly. Similarly, the scenes and dialogue set in America, presenting her struggles and resilience in settling into her new environment, are depicted in cinematic style. It’s interesting to note that “Wiktor’s folly” is indeed family hearsay. The short length and some loose ends in the plot indicate that a sequel might follow.