#Book Review: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

Author: Marina Lewycka

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian was recommended by Sarah Whittle for the #WECAN book club in honour of her Ukrainian heritage. It would be an understatement to say I was initially shocked by the suggestion thinking we will have to read about how tractors were invented or something daft. It is also difficult to describe the relief I felt when I realised it is a cleverly written novel which has an interesting element of a typical Slavic drama but then also has this element of writing Ukrainian history by writing about tractors, with the tractor story being nicely intertwined. An 84 years old father of Nadezhda, who narrates the book, writes a book about the history of tractors which is intertwined with the story otherwise centred on his private life and the struggle Nadezhda and her sister Vera have to separate him from his much younger wife Valentina, a Ukrainian immigrant who marries their father, despite being in her 30s to obtain a UK residence permit and she does this also to support her son Stanislaw so he can get access to British education.

Image for A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian taken from Amazon

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is written as a story of Nadezhda who writes about her thoughts and feelings as well as conversations with her father, Valentina and Vera, as well as a set of side characters who appear in the book. I enjoyed the story of an old father being an intellectual and writing in his old age, as well as his unquestionable passion for science (he was an engineer). I, even more, enjoyed the narrative of a science guy appreciating humanities by engaging with history work, which is not always the case (see here).  

Valentina is not portrayed in a good light but as an aggressive bully who only seeks money and a UK residence permit. At the same time, she is also portrayed as a struggling mother who works two jobs to survive and who would do anything for her son.  Nadezhda is a lecturer in sociology and declares as a feminist but then also engages in separating Valentina from her father and fails to see her other side and a difficult life story. She does at some moments in the book but then carries on anyway with pursuing separation even by turning into a right-wing supporter and reporting Valentina to the UK Home Office to get all her residence applications rejected and her marriage unrecognised as genuine. She explores her transformation from a left-wing person into, what she calls, a ‘send-them-home’ right winger, which is a very interesting narrative and a personal self-reflection showing how people can have one view, and quite a liberal or leftist one until they end up in a situation where those views are to be either preserved or contested. Then they end up in cognitive dissonance, which is clearly what is happening to Nadezhda. Or, she was in favour of immigrants arriving on British shores until one arrived at her doorstep, then the immigrant had no chance. Hypocrisy at its best but cleverly written and explored. I did not enjoy a negative portrayal of Valentina as a bully and a shallow person (e.g., she wants things she perceives as civilised including only readily made food rather than cooking, she wants different furniture again based on her perception of what is civilised, etc). I thought that this portrayed Eastern European immigrants in a rather bad light. I do believe that there is some truth in how some immigrants see their new lives and how they want to be portrayed as successful back home and indeed, the author portrays her family as hard-working, law-abiding and grateful immigrants so I suppose, there is a positive narrative too. But, I just did not like the portrayal of a bad stepmother because this has historically been the case, that women were portrayed as fundamentally unable to be good stepmoms (see a BBC story on the myth of an evil stepmom).

But then again, the author also tells us a story of her own family and identities with early socialisation, as with my and other research, proving very important. So, Nadezhda portrays her family as in between social classes. She sees them through working-class lenses whereas her sister sees them through middle-class lenses. In one incident from childhood, a rich woman in a fur coat also made a mark on both sisters and how they behave, think of the world and live their lives. Nadezhda and Vera saw a lady give some coins to their mother who took them and said ‘thank you, lady’ and this meant that Nadezhda became a left-wing supporter who participated in protests whereas Vera became a lady in the coat and cherished her middle-class status. A very poignant story of childhood and how early memories, in this case, a humiliation of their mother for taking coins despite studying to be a vet before leaving Ukraine after WWII, directed and shifted the lives of children who witnessed this situation. In addition to that, there is an interesting portrayal of England and the English as kind, open and willing to help newcomers to the country which is contrasted with those who don’t like immigrants and have a ‘send-them-home’ view of immigration. The author portrays this well and speaks about England’s kindness but then wonders if there are two Englands, a finding that I found in my research into women in advertising with women in the south complaining quite a lot in comparison to the women in the north of England who expressed less concerns about their status as a woman in the advertising industry. In the same way, the author talks about English kindness and this is also depicted through the portrayal of Nadezhda’s husband Mike vs those who might not be so fond of immigrants. Very, very interesting and lots of food for thought here.

But, what was also interesting here was the strong identification of two sisters, Vera in particular, with England. So, we hear the language of the Far Right in Vera and then later Nadezhda who speak of immigrants coming to abuse the system, claim benefits, etc. This was also very interesting, it is essentially a story of an identity crisis because two sisters grew up in a Ukrainian family in England and have divided identities albeit loyalty is interestingly, in both cases, with England.

Finally, the story of tractors honours Ukraine and the author also writes Ukrainian history through the history of tractors, which is really interesting. I also thought it was interesting when the author writes about quarrels with her sister, not speaking for many years, then threading on eggshells when finally getting in touch because of Valentina. These situations made me laugh so many times because this is exactly what happens in the Slavic world where people can quarrel to the point of not speaking with one another for many years and then come together as if nothing happened. So, not so English after all, Mrs’ ‘send-them-home’? This was hysterical and entertaining throughout the book.

In summary, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is a good book except for this evil portrayal of Valentina. I would have much preferred a narrative of a victim mother rather than this witch portrayal and by a witch, I do not mean anything negative personally for I mean nothing ill of witches. I am referring to the usually negative portrayal of witches and a general tendency, particularly in the Slavic world, to depict bad women in this way (think of Baba Yaga in the Slavic world or a general issue with independent women being portrayed as witches, which was historically also used to suppress women’s intellect). There is a plethora of works in ecofeminism tackling this issue by also arguing that when men started to invent modern science they declared women healers as witches and burnt them so there is an issue with this portrayal and whilst the author does not call Valentina a witch, it is what I read from the book.

But, all in all, a great book with lots of social debates that give the reader food for thought and some quite entertaining moments. I definitely recommend this book.

Thank you for reading.

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