Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 901
The Issa Valley is the tale of a rural boyhood from the turn of the century to World War I. The place is Poland, but the part of Poland that was formerly the nation of Lithuania. The Issa Valley may be secluded, but there are conflicts between those who wish to restore Lithuania and those who support Poland. The main character of the story is Thomas Dilbin; he is living with his Grandfather and Grandmother Surkont, members of the landed gentry, while his father and mother are away. The novel follows Thomas from his earliest years to the age of fourteen. During those years, Thomas is initiated into the larger world and comes to terms with the historical situation and the diverse characters who surround him.
The setting of the novel is a combination of the pastoral and the rural; there are idyllic descriptions of the forest, the lakes, and the river, but there are real peasants in that forest with their folklore and tales of demons. Thomas is influenced by the pastoral and rural elements as well as the social, religious, and political environment. Some of the conflicts between these aspects can be seen when Thomas has to curtail his visits to a peasant family and the fishing expeditions and adventures because of his studies. The political and nationalistic conflicts are apparent when Thomas is sent to learn to write Polish from Joseph, a peasant who is an ardent Lithuanian nationalist. Another conflict can be seen in his friendship with a poor boy, Dominic Malanowski. Dominic is a free spirit and shocks Thomas by slicing a Host he received at Mass; Thomas is shocked not only by the sacrilege but also by a revelation that his own existence is transitory. As a result, Thomas, for the first time, wonders about his curious state with his mother and father absent and the former solidity of his world threatened.
In contrast to the threat to Thomas’ sense of self, there are chapters in the novel that describe and discuss his ancestors and their world, especially the heretic Hieronymous Surkont. Surkont denies the Trinity in favor of the one God of the Bible and joins the Swedish king in an attempt to reestablish the nation of Lithuania. Obviously, he represents both independence of thought and something of the absurdity of betraying his country, Poland, in order to bring back his ancient Lithuanian heritage. Many of the characters in the novel are faced with similar absurd choices.
Living characters also influence Thomas’ view of the world. For example, Romuald Bukowski introduces him to the world of hunting in the forest. Thomas had earlier wandered about the woods as an observer, naming trees and birds, but now he is an active pursuer. He hunts adders, deer, and ducks with the gun that Romuald has given him. There are, however, both contrasts and conflicts caused by this relationship with Romuald. His grandfather, for example, brings Thomas back to the world of books by giving him The History of Lithuania. Furthermore, Thomas is both a reluctant and an inefficient killer in the forest.
A historical conflict between classes also appears in the novel; Thomas’ grandfather is a large landowner and is subject to the division of the large estates to give the peasants their own land. Grandfather Surkont tries to avoid that appropriation of land by placing his daughter Helen into the cottage of the forester Balthazar; by doing this, he will be able to hold on to twice as much property. This, however, leads to a conflict with Balthazar, who has been paranoid since an encounter with a German soldier. Balthazar, in an attempt to hold on to what he has, ends up burning his place down and killing a villager, ultimately being killed himself.
Death brings about the most important changes in Thomas. First, the death of his Grandmother Dilbin makes him question the nature of death; was it inevitable? Why did people accept it as a necessity and not fight against it? He begins to see: “What looked so simple could not be so simple.” Death in the forest also affects Thomas. He is an eager killer at first, but the touch of the first duck he kills surprises him. He is angry when he panics when the birds are flushed, but when he shoots a squirrel he begins to question his earlier values. He regrets killing the animal, and the world of the forest that had seemed to be his preserve is now “gutted.” Later, he has a chance to kill a buck and refuses; he even forgets about his gun.
The novel ends with other changes in Thomas. He begins to judge his elders rather than merely accept them. He wonders whether Grandmother Surkont’s self-containment and aloofness are proper, and he is shocked to find that his mother, Tekla, has not fulfilled a vow because it is inconvenient. He even begins to perceive his possible vocation when he tentatively tells the elders that he may become a priest. The final movement of the novel is a departure from the Edenic land of the Issa Valley to the city. The last view the reader has of Thomas is sitting in a wagon bound for the city to an unknown future: “Your future can only be guessed, for no one can predict how you will be shaped by the world that awaits you.”