The Turk and my Mother

Written by Mary Helen Stefaniak
Review by Trudi E. Jacobson

This is the story of several generations of a Croatian family, both in their native country and in the United States. The mother of the title is Agnes, and it is her husband Josef who first emigrates to the U.S., just before World War I. Other key characters include Josef’s mother, known as Staramajka (the Croatian word for grandmother); Josef’s brother, Marko, a soldier who is missing in action; Agnes’s daughter Madeline; and George, Agnes’s son and the narrator of this story. Josef is unable to bring his family to Milwaukee until after the war, and that provides the opportunity for Agnes to the meet the Turk in her native village.

This dry recounting of the bare bones of the book gives, however, no sense of the incredible richness and mesmerizing nature of the storytelling. The different stories weave in and out, and we learn more details about people and events as we read further. Staramajka is a wonderful character, full of life and impishness and hidden secrets, so it comes as a shock when one of the younger generation remarks that she appears to others as a frightening old woman. We have seen her humanity and her incredible sense of compassion. There are echoes of events from generation to generation, and a number of surprises along the way.

In an extensive interview with the author at the end of the book, she mentions that her greatest challenge was to make sure the reader could identify where and when the action on any given page was taking place. This can shift from sentence to sentence, and even within a sentence, but she has succeeded admirably, and I never felt confused. The author also mentions that her secret wish was that she “write a book whose ending would make the reader feel compelled to go back and reread the book.” Her wish will shortly be fulfilled by this reader, who longs to enter this enchanting tale once again.