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Our Lady of Steerage by Steven Mayoff
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Our Lady of Steerage

by Steven Mayoff

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In his first novel, Steven Mayoff has written an insightful chronicle of many lives spanning many years. It is 1923, and 19-year-old Mariasse Knyszinski leaves her Kraków home in order to follow her cousin Piotr, who has left Poland for a new life in Canada. It is a drastic and perhaps reckless step taken by a girl who has no wish to end up like her mother, mired in a life of fear and servitude. On the S.S. Montmartre Mariasse meets a young Jewish couple, Betye and Shulim, who have just lost their young son to illness. Grieving Betye is unable to cope with her infant daughter, Dvorah, so Mariasse cares for the child as the ship sails west, and over the weeks of the voyage a bond forms between the girl and the infant that is not broken until Dvorah's death 39 years later. The novel is structured in a non-linear fashion, beginning in 1962 with Dvorah’s funeral, then jumping back to 1923 with Mariasse’s escape from Kraków. Subsequent scenes are set later in the 1920s and in the 1930s and 1940s, when key events in the lives of the characters take place. It is a risky narrative strategy and makes the story more difficult to follow than a straightforward narrative. But it enables the reader to interpret later events in light of earlier ones, and also to do the reverse. By showing us his characters at various stages of their lives, Mayoff infuses the story with a sense of time passing and of time having passed, giving a novel of modest length the feel of a much longer work. Our Lady of Steerage tells a complex tale that revolves around the difficult choices we are forced to make in order to survive. As a young woman, Mariasse Knyszinski abandons the only life she knows in order to throw herself into the unknown. Has she made a terrible mistake? In the end all we know for certain is that over the next forty years, as a result of her fateful decision, Mariasse reaps joy and sorrow in equal measure. In the world that Steven Mayoff conjures up in his wise and astute first novel, memory is sometimes fluid, but it is impossible to escape the past. ( )
  icolford | May 2, 2015 |
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