Maia (Teresa) Wojciechowska 1927–
Polish-born novelist, biographer, poet, and translator.
Wojciechowska won the Newbery Medal in 1965 for Shadow of a Bull, which, according to the awards committee, "epitomizes all humanity's struggle for conquest of fear and knowledge of self." The novel, set in Spain, relates a boy's agonizing decision not to follow his famous father as a bullfighter, but to establish his own identity. The need to become one's true self and to refuse to accept an identity based on others' expectations is a recurring theme in Wojciechowska's fiction. Her protagonists strive to find courage within themselves to confront and resolve problems that are usually the result of family or societal pressures.
While some critics complain of a didactic prose style that leads to contrived resolutions, most praise Wojciechowska's presentation of the struggle to assert oneself. Both Shadow of a Bull and Till the Break of Day, an account of Wojciechowska's adolescent flight during the Nazi invasion of Poland and her later anti-Nazi efforts, are viewed as important works and are strongly recommended for young adults. Although Wojciechowska turned away from young adult fiction in the mid-1970s, she remains an influential figure in young adult literature.
(See also Children's Literature Review, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 4; and Something about the Author, Vols. 1, 28.)
["Shadow of a Bull"] deals with fear in the heart of Manolo Olivar, a 12-year-old Spanish boy, son of a great bullfighter who had been killed in the ring.
The book is tight,… done by a writer whose native language is not English. Miss Wojciechowska knows bullfighting and, more important, she is a magnificent writer. In spare, economical prose she makes one feel, see, smell the heat, endure the hot Andalusian sun and shows one the sand and glare of the bullring. Above all, she lifts the veil and gives glimpses of the terrible loneliness in the soul of a boy.
Perhaps the ending was ever so slightly contrived. But the whole is so good it does not detract from an eloquent, moving book…. This book is a must; buy it, read it. If you do, I promise two things: anyone who starts "Shadow of a Bull" will finish it in a single sitting. Second, he won't be quite the same person he was before reading the book.
John R. Tunis, in his review of "Shadow of a Bull," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1964 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 22, 1964, p. 22.
["Shadow of a Bull"] is about a little Spanish town whose heart is the market place and whose soul is the bull ring. The hero—or anti-hero—is the ten-year-old son of a famous bull-fighter. In the main square is a huge statue of his father, and in the cemetery, marking his father's grave, is another. The boy was three when his father was killed in the ring, and doesn't even remember him. Because of his father, he is treated with more respect than other boys, he is taken to the bullfights, he is allowed to see the bullfighters dressing and eating and waiting their turn in the ring, and to listen to their conversation. The men of the town talk to him incessantly of his father, and though he is unable to summon the courage to jump from a hay wagon with the other boys, he is expected to enter the bull ring alone when he is twelve and kill his first bull…. He wishes that he had not been born the son of his father, that he had not been born at all. It is a theme worthy of [Joseph] Conrad. The book's only weakness is its ending. So often, good fiction for children has a contrived ending—as if a book were a nursery that had to be tidied up, and the characters put back on their proper shelves, and the door firmly closed. But then the same thing is true of fiction for adults. Miss Wojciechowska knows everything there is to know about bullfighting and a lot about fear and courage.
Emily Maxwell, in her review of "Shadow of a Bull," in The New Yorker (© 1964 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XL, No. 42, December 5, 1964, pp. 224-25.
["Shadow of a Bull"] is disarmingly simple; yet nuances of feeling continually break through, and their subtlety astonishes the adult reader who supposes that a book for children is necessarily … childish.
"Shadow of a Bull" is the story of Manolo Olivar, age 9 when the tale opens, and 11 when it concludes. He is the son of the man who had been the greatest bullfighter in Spain. (p. 103)
But Manolo lacks the fire of afición, the true love of the archaic contest—the ritual confrontation of a brave man with a brave bull, "the victory of man over death" which the Spanish call la fiesta brava. A sensitive, brooding, introspective boy, he knows this; but he is the son of his father, and that is a great burden as well as an exalted privilege….
A new illumination comes when he assists an old doctor in treating the wounds of a gored torero—and knows that healing is his true vocation.
Nevertheless, he engages in a novice fight. He is brilliant with the cape—but he is not born to the art and fails finally, cannot go through with the faena, the finale leading to the kill. But he has vindicated his honor, and now he can become a healer of wounds, and in that sense, a killer of death.
As accomplished and colorful as this prize-winning book is, it still poses interesting questions concerning the nature of children's literature. It can be argued that the ending is false and bathetic, Pollyanna plus American middle-class values. "My son, the doctor" does not translate easily into Andalusian Spanish. Manolo would far more likely become a peasant, or a hanger-on at bars where aficionados gather to while away the nights with epic tales of stupendous deeds of valor.
But if scrupulous emotional truth is asking too much of a book for children, this will have to do—a touching story told with finesse and delicacy, arresting in its cape-work, even dazzling, but in the end—at the faena, where it matters most—questionable. (p. 104)
A review of "Shadow of a Bull," in Newsweek (copyright 1965, by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LXV, No. 11, March 15, 1965, pp. 102, 104.
The author may well be proud of [Odyssey of Courage: The Story of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, a] history that reads like fiction, with a style that is flawless. Maia Wojciechowska has chosen to write about a man who is relatively unknown, but one who deserves much more recognition. Cabeza de Vaca's overland journey from Florida to Mexico, seeking for those cities of pure gold, is one of amazing endurance and courage, as exciting as any tale that [Walt] Disney could imagine…. [Cabeza de Vaca] tried to bring peace and freedom where only brutality and avarice existed. His enemies saw to it that he was imprisoned, misunderstood and misrepresented, that he would die a broken man with only his dreams and ideas and fervent love of God intact. But his principles live on to this day and young readers of the present will feel privileged to read this wonderful account.
A review of "Odyssey of Courage: The Story of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca," in Best Sellers (copyright 1965, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 25, No. 4, May 15, 1965, p. 102.
Knowing perfectly well that only the certifiably insane believe it, I am all for instilling in legal infants the tragic sense of life, ideas of radical evil, existential decision, the intolerable certainty of death—though I would not, of course, deny them healthy play and sufficient sunlight. I have the lunatic, indefensible conviction that it is good for them—morally and aesthetically. I realize, by some monstrous irony of history and human perversity, that the great "children's books" are among the most unbearable of all books. Take the Brothers Grimm, and [Lemuel] Gulliver, and Huck [Finn], and [Robinson] Crusoe. Like any other great work of art, they tell the truth, they tell it pitilessly; and the truths they tell are often ugly, sometimes very nearly insupportable—which is simply to say that they tell the truth. (pp. 321-22)
We have so many ways of lying, so few of telling the truth. And lying is of the very essence of bad art. Lies are always prettier than the truth. They come in soft pastels and they smell nice. They seem more suitable—certainly for children. We tell ourselves they're not ready for the truths we know. After enough feedings, lies become the only truths they know….
The 1964 winner [of the Newbery Award] is Maia Wojciechowska's Shadow of a Bull, a book which seems to me to be a case in point. Although it contains some drawings, it is no picture book for tots. It is a short novel intended for kids who can read a sustained narrative of a certain complexity all by themselves, with no one breathing down their necks.
Shadow is a harmless little book, sweet in its way, and instructive. Among other things, it is a guide to bullfighting, its technique and mystique, both, tricked out with a glossary of terms in Spanish and English, a how-to manual, and rather vivid descriptions of the balletic moves. The small protagonist, Manolo Olivar,… is the only son of the great Juan Olivar …—the superlative numero uno, killed in the ring. All Arcangel—his Andalusian town—lives for the time when Manolo will redeem all Spain by becoming his father's even greater successor. Like a primitive people awaiting the advent of a rain-king, all Spain awaits the "birth of a bullfighter." That will be the meaning of his life, and theirs.
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The exploits of the Spanish conquistadors are not always considered proper fare for children's books: the truth about them is too harsh, too cruel, too immoral. Maia Wojciechowska,… faces the facts squarely in ["Odyssey of Courage: The Story of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca"] her brief, vigorous biography of the man who first explored much of the area that became the southern United States and who later served as Spanish Governor of Paraguay.
The story is not a pretty one. The Spanish explorers and settlers display the full range of human crimes and vices: avarice and treachery, murder and slavery—even cannibalism. Yet over-shadowing all the brutality and terror are the courage, fortitude and...
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[In A Kingdom in a Horse] a young teenager, David Earl,… feels betrayed and thwarted by his father, a daredevil rodeo clown. A rodeo catastrophe has convinced the father that his son must not follow his career. Retirement to a Vermont village brings an end to David's dreams and a period of bewilderment and pain. The horse is a tentative gift from the father. While David's love goes out to it immediately, he refuses to accept the horse and it is sold to a lonely widow: Sarah Tierney. With mounting enthusiasm the author describes the growing significance the horse comes to have for this elderly woman. It is the rebirth of loving, caring, giving—an Indian summer of fulfillment after helpless bereavement....
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It's well known that horse lovers are dedicated—some to the point of nuttiness—yet it is distressing to read [in "A Kingdom in a Horse"] of a 64-year-old woman as enamored of her first horse as any teen-age heroine. It is also hard to believe that Sarah, a Vermont farm woman, though newly widowed and lonely, would spend most of her waking and some of her sleeping hours with her mare.
One can believe in 13-year-old David Earl, though, whose life is briefly but momentously entwined with Sarah's and that of her mare, Gypsy…. [Maia Wojciechowska] poignantly evokes David's desperation when his father, a rodeo clown, retires after a nearly fatal goring. David, who has dreamed of being his father's...
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I saw her, for the first and only time, on a rainy November afternoon in 1962. We both boarded the Fifth Avenue bus, going downtown, at Forty-second Street. We both found seats at the back of the bus, and she sat across the aisle from me.
She wore glasses, had straight, long, mousey brown hair, an armful of books, an alpaca-lined raincoat, and a sad, small face. She was ugly and she knew it.
I imagined that she was the only child of an intellectual couple no longer married to each other. Her mother had a full-time job and would not be home until six. At least two evenings a week the mother took courses toward her master's, maybe once a week she went out with a man. Her father was a...
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Maia Wojciechowska is an extremely gifted writer. But in [The Hollywood Kid] it is painful to say, the excellence of her writing cannot mask the fact that what she is dishing out is specious, The Hollywood Kid is a stark little tale that begins at the bottom of despair and swiftly descends. Bryan Wilson, the 15-year-old only child of Hollywood's greatest movie queen, sits morosely beside his mother's huge swimming pool and asks: "Does life need to be so crummy?"
Bryan and his one friend, a 12-year-old girl named Martha, are lonely, sophisticated, cynical, bright, world-weary kids, drenched in luxury but thirsty for emotional life, deprived not only of love but also of anything...
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In [The Hollywood Kid] Miss Wojciechowska does succeed in conveying some idea of what life in the Hollywood milieu must be like for a sensitive adolescent boy. Despite this, the book is a blatant failure mainly because it is a pseudo-adult rather than a juvenile novel. Hollywood families obviously have problems which are quite different from those of average families. And, the 15-year-old hero's problems arise from his life; it is certainly difficult to be the son of a famous movie star, to live amidst the glamour and phoniness of Hollywood, to lose two fathers—the real one by divorce, the stepfather by death. Bryan's search for help somehow strikes the wrong note and the solution to his problems does not...
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[Maia Wojciechowska] again illustrates, through "The Hollywood Kid," her sensitive insight into the enigma of a genuinely troubled juvenile born to the purple of picture royalty….
Miss Wojciechowska's taut, precise prose makes it plain that she knows the heart and mind of an unusual lad struggling to free himself from a tinseled world he never made or wanted.
The author's expertise extends to the man-made planet bounded by Hollywood Studio sets with their frustrations and tensions, the exclusive menages of Bel Air, the manufactured merriment of Disneyland. She writes as though she had had first-hand contact with Bryan as he lives through the turbulent death of the...
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The distinguishing characteristic of ["The Hollywood Kid"] … is its author's profound contempt for the mental capacity of her readers….
[The protagonist, Bryan,] is the only son of a beautiful movie actress who puts stardom before motherhood and devotes just half an hour every day to her son—an arrangement, considering the quality of his conversation, one can hardly blame her for. When the book begins, the boy's stepfather has just died. He had been a movie director and the one person, besides a Polish cleaning woman, "who ever said anything to Bryan that he remembered." The dull-witted boy, however, is considerably less affected by his stepfather's death than he is exercised about the décor...
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[In A Single Light, a] deaf-and-dumb girl whom the world has rejected, a pedant and a priest who have, each in his own way, rejected the world, are brought together by a marble statue of the Christ Child concealed in a remote Spanish church…. Roughly the first half is the girl's story, and it has the undeniable heart-tug of a Jane Wyman movie at a more measured pace. With the advent of Larry Katchen, the American, the somber absorption is blasted into facetious fragments; although he has a chance to recover his humanity, the book never recovers even a sympathetic conviction. It becomes a cryptoparable that masticates love and morality into pulp. (pp. 344-45)
A review of...
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Maia Wojciechowska is obviously on the side of the angels. Her new book [A Single Light] is a legend imbued with the desperation of the human need for love. Its vivid setting is the harsh, gnarled landscape of Spanish Andalucia. In it lies a poverty-ridden town named, symbolically, Almas—Spanish for "souls." Its heroine is a deaf-and-dumb girl, so unloved by her widower father that he has even neglected to name her. She is a creature of seraphic simplicity, unsentimentally portrayed….
It is after her "miracle," her discovery of [a lost statue of the infant Christ], that a middle-aged American art expert appears on the scene. A failure, as rejected and as thirsty for human love as the...
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["A Single Light"] is a short book, not more than 30,000 words. (How often good books are short!) I read it twice, to see whether it was as fine as it seemed. It was even better.
Basically a parable, "A Single Light" is a message of love and need, hung round a deaf-and-dumb girl….
The unnamed girl's story is told in the simplest terms. As it moves to its climax, we see how her presence changes the lives of those around her: the priest, his housekeeper, the towns-people—even the visiting art-expert from America, who discovers a priceless Renaissance sculpture of the Christ Child hidden in the local church.
The girl, who has long since accepted the statue as the...
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Told with controlled pathos, the plight of a young deaf and dumb girl, who grew up unwanted in an Andalusian village, and the impact of her presence on the villagers, the local priest, and an American art expert traveling in search of a priceless lost sculpture makes a strong story [in A Single Light]. The themes are the overwhelming human need for love and the possibility for even the meanest persons to change. Because of the appeal which these universal themes have for young people and the smooth and unobtrusive quality of the writing, the book should have a wide readership.
Bernice Levine, in her review of "A Single Light," in Library Journal (reprinted from...
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The horror and despair of the drug scene is conveyed in this excellent book [Tuned Out] without romance or sensation. The book's substance is the journal of a 16-year-old boy, his record of the summer that Kevin, his older brother and idol, returned from the University of Chicago.
For Jim the summer is a nightmare. Kevin learned to "turn on and tune out" at school. LSD is his bag now. The family is respectable, middle class. The parents are kind but incredibly dense and unaware of any change in Kevin. Jim bears the burden of caring for him through his last freak-out. The journal tells more than Kevin's story. It reveals much about the family and about the complex relationship between the two...
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Nothing is fudged up [in "Tuned Out"]; the sadder parts of the drug scene are left out (the sexual indiscrimination common among female users, for example), but the essential story is told.
We are shown in convincing detail the effects of pot and acid; the whole drug scene is handled with authority, from the hippie pad to the mental hospital. The differences among the drugs are clearly spelled out; finally, someone has said how important it is to lump marijuana with the more dangerous hallucinogens. The story is vivid enough to need no moralizing. Motivation is clear and readers know what happened. Not everyone else has been so lucky.
If one is slightly uneasy at remaining dry-eyed...
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Anguish and fear cry out in [Tuned Out, a] rare, moving novel about two brothers sucked into deepest despondency by the world of drugs. So intense is the conflict, so satanic the power of "grass" and "acid," that the drama seems to proceed on two levels: the desperate struggle of Jim to save Kevin's soul and sanity, and the universal war between good and evil…. [When] Kevin takes his trip with LSD, Jim stays behind as a terrified onlooker, battling against Kevin's nightmare visions and the strangling circles which reduce the boy to a quaking, terrified animal. No recent novel or factual treatment succeeds as well in showing the self-deception, the sense of alienation, the bitterness against the established...
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Maia Wojciechowska is often a fine writer. ["'Don't Play Dead Before You Have To'"] is nearly one of those times.
There are good things. Here is an attempt to write about the kid in-between—neither college nor slum-bound, neither bright nor deadeningly dumb, not ambitious but aware—the middle achiever who is too frequently ignored. There is an honest, moving, yet oddly oblique look at the depression and attempted suicide of a very bright child whose parents are separating. And there is a lovely coup de théâtre as an old man, a once-famous philosopher, allows a television interview knowing he will die on camera.
There are some not-so-good things, too. The contrivance on...
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Record the voice of an adolescent as he speaks and writes to a child for a three-year-period and you will have an interesting account of that adolescent's growth. This is the device employed by Maia Wojciechowska in her new novel, "Don't Play Dead Before You Have To." The device is as pretentious as the quotation marks about the title of this brief novel.
It doesn't work. Byron, the adolescent, is an unbelievable, average guy who is sincerely concerned about the problems and welfare of a five-year-old boy for whom he babysits…. A reader learns a great deal about Byron through these oral and written conversations with Charlie. But what a reader learns does not contribute to the character the...
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Despite her obvious attempt to speak for contemporary young people in her newest novel [The Rotten Years] Maia Wojciechowska succeeds only in tediously preaching at them. The barest essentials of characterization and plot are summarily disposed of in the first two chapters which introduce the protagonists: 14-year-old Denise Brown, whose "rotten years" (here arbitrarily defined as ages 12 through 15) are further complicated by her paranoid, Agnew-spouting, fanatically religious mother; and Elsie Jones, the "resident subversive" high school history teacher at Mark Twain Junior High School…. The bulk of the book is devoted to the activities of Mrs. Jones' experimental class set up to mobilize her students for a...
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[The] defects that mar most problem political [books for juveniles] are of two kinds—excessive detachment (inability to feel the exciting, promising newness of politics to youth) and excessive righteousness (lack of responsiveness to the humanity, however ignorant, of the benighted opposition). And neither of this season's interesting political juveniles—Nat Hentoff's "In the Country of Ourselves" and Maia Wojciechowska's "The Rotten Years"—is free of one or the other of those defects. (p. 3)
[The] impression left by ["In the Country of Ourselves"] as a whole—namely that politics is boring—is under-nourishing and false.
A nearly opposite failing scars Maia Wojciechowska's...
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Maia Wojciechowska says that [The Rotten Years] is her only important book. It is certainly her best book since Shadow of a Bull. The editorial gimmicks the author has been intrigued by in recent books are skillfully handled in The Rotten Years contributing valuable effects: headlines scream actual news events; the succession of letters written by parents to Mrs. Elsie Jones come as a natural result of the activities in the story; varieties in type size call legitimate attention to important distinctions in speakers.
The Rotten Years recounts one month in the lives of Mrs. Elsie Jones and her seventh-grade class in American history…. During this month Mrs. Jones vows...
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The theme [of "Through the Broken Mirror with Alice"] is Man Against Man; nature has … been eliminated and, as far as one can see, all good men, including fathers and grandfathers, have been killed off. The scene is Harlem; the heroine is Alice who has been kicked out of her 12th foster home with only an imaginary bee to keep her company and a copy of [Lewis Carroll's] "Through the Looking Glass." Bee and book are both important: the bee to buzz inside Alice's head whenever life becomes too much, the book to convert the unhappy world of Harlem into the chessboard world of Lewis Carroll.
Alice, of course, becomes a pawn; the local librarian is the White Queen, the school history teacher is the Black...
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Two volumes of World War II memoirs may appeal as much to parents—for whom the war was reality—as to their teenagers, for whom it is merely history…. [Johanna Reiss's The Upstairs Room and Maia Wojciechowska's Till the Break of Day] both offer straightforward, not-to-be-missed accounts of what it was to leave childhood abruptly behind as Europe entered and endured world war.
Their victory-over-adversity themes are nothing new. But they present them with such disarming freshness and candor that it is difficult sometimes to remember the authors are drawing on 30-year-old memories….
Maia Wojciechowska was 12 when Germany invaded her native Poland in 1939. From...
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Confession may be good for the soul, but confessional writing may not be good reading unless the penitent is blessed, as is the author of [Till the Break of Day, Memories: 1939–1942] remarkable document, with an understanding of life's absurdities, a sense of the dramatic, and a felicitous talent for precise, vivid description. Because [Maia Wojciechowska has] these qualities, her reminiscences of a turbulent adolescence during the Second World War are both intensely personal and yet recognizable as a universal statement on the tragicomic conditions which are a necessary part of maturation. The Foreword, comparing the writing of autobiography to the making of a movie, makes use of a particularly apt analogy,...
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There is no overall tone or mood to unify the ten brief folk tales included [in Winter Tales from Poland. And] it's hard to know what to make of the unfolksy opener, with its pointed putdown of people who are greedy or who distrust what is different, about a Polish poet-angel with clipped wings. In the same moral vein is "The Freak," about a "baby" who is born as an old man into an unheeding village that is soon destroyed by war—but there are also conventional fairy tales featuring riddles and tests of love, a stepmother who appears as a mare and a prince in disguise who marries the princess. The flimsiest tale concerns an incompetent witch who falls in love; the one about a tailor so skinny he can only eat...
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[Wojciechowska] presents legendary folktales of her native country [in Winter Tales from Poland]. One is about a baby born an old man, with the power of speech. He asks the villagers why they engage in battles every 10 years, and if they can remember what was the last just cause they had fought for. But he's killed by a bullet before they can answer. Some of the stories are light and entertaining but most have a heavy moral; all are tightly structured and engrossing.
A review of "Winter Tales from Poland," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the February 12, 1973 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright ©...
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With great candor, humor, and vividness, Maia Wojciechowska gives an autobiographical account of how she lived through the years 1939–1942 [in Till the Break of Day]…. Her family managed to escape from Poland and went from town to town in France and then to Madrid, Lisbon, London, and finally the United States. At each stopover Maia waged her personal war against the Germans. For example, in France she and her brother were willing to risk death in order to shoot at the Germans. Frustrated in this attempt, they harassed the enemy by stealing hundreds of their bicycles, slashing tires, wrecking truck motors. Many of Maia's escapades and lucky breaks will make the reader gasp. In describing herself Maia gives...
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[Winter Tales from Poland is a collection of] freely adapted and embellished Polish folk tales [which] contain all of the elements familiar to that folklore: the mixture of mysticism and common sense; the presence of angels and death in human guise; and, the testing of wits or virtue by riddles and dilemmas. Readers will recognize Joseph Nitechka (here Josef Niteczka), the jolly tailor who is so thin he can only eat noodles and who saves a village from flood by mending a hole in the sky. The vigor and humor of [Lucia Merecka] Borski and [Kate B.] Miller's The Jolly Tailor and Other Fairy Tales … are less evident here, where the balance falls to more somber themes. However, Wojciechowska effectively...
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Reviews of a number of the novels of Maia Wojciechowska contain phrases like 'a blatant failure', 'too blurred to be effective', 'succeeds only in tediously preaching', and 'the pretentiously allegorical parades of stereotypes'. These are hardly the sentiments to encourage readership and there is a sense in which Wojciechowska is her own worst enemy. It is not too fanciful to suggest that her personal life has been so exotic that she finds it very difficult to communicate with ordinary mortals….
It is a pity,… that two of [Wojciechowska's] novels from the 1960s are in danger of being lost. They are Shadow of a Bull (1964) and A Single Light (1968). Both are set in Spain. It is the...
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