Andrew Krivak’s novel The Sojourn tells the story of Jozef Vinich, an American-born Slovak who returns to his home country as a child and fights in World War I on the side of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Written in the manner of a first-person memoir, the novel touches on themes of loss, violence, family, and love and paints a vivid, sometimes gruesome portrait of life on the European as well as American frontiers.
The Sojourn opens with a brief, italicized section set in Colorado at the turn of the century. A married couple of Slovakian immigrants has come to this obscure western outpost hoping to make their fortune, but they have found life as hardscrabble and impoverished as the one they left in Europe. Ondrej and his wife, Lizzie, have a baby named Jozef. On Sunday they visit Lizzie’s brother and his wife. Desiring fresh air and a break from the chaos of the kitchen, Lizzie takes her son and nephew on a walk through town. Lizzie believes the train is not scheduled to come through for hours, so she walks out on a trestle with her nephew and the baby Jozef wrapped to her chest. Lizzie, however, has misremembered the train schedule: when she and the boys are out in the middle of trestle, looking down into the river where some boys are swimming, a train suddenly emerges from behind a hill. She realizes there is no time to get to the other side, so she throws Jozef into the river as the train bears down on her. Although Lizzie and her nephew are killed by the train, one of the boys swimming in the river saves the infant, who survives miraculously.
The novel picks up next in the voice of Jozef, writing in the year 1972, whose helpless infant body was saved by one of the boys swimming in the river that day. Jozef proceeds to describe his infancy in America. After Lizzie’s death, Ondrej returns east to Pennsylvania and takes a job in a mine, but he is miserable and lonely. Ondrej’s one love besides his son is shooting—he is a talented sharpshooter and hunter and treats his rifle, a M1896 Krag, like a second child. Ondrej takes a job accompanying a wealthy landowner on a hunting trip. During the outing, the rich man borrows Ondrej’s Krag rifle, slips, and shoots himself through the heart. Ondrej is afraid he will be framed for the rich man’s murder, so he decides to return to his home in a small village in Slovakia, which is at the time on the outskirts of the Hungarian Empire. Ondrej arranges by mail to marry a woman in the town. At just two years old, Jozef leaves America with his father for a world he has never known.
Life in the village of Pastvina is hardly idyllic. The woman Ondrej contracted to marry, Borka, is cruel and shrill and refuses to feed Jozef as well as her two older sons. Ondrej is a shepherd; therefore, he is gone for much of the year. Jozef grows up malnourished, unloved, and bullied by his two older step-brothers. Things improve for Jozef when Ondrej starts taking him along on his shepherding trips. For months at a time, Jozef and his father are alone in the mountains. During the day Jozef helps his father take care of the flock. His father mandates that they speak only English when they are shepherding. In the evenings they read by candlelight the sacred books brought by Ondrej from America: Walden, Whitman’s poetry, Moby Dick, and the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. When he is nine years old, Jozef is forced to attend school, but he only lasts one academic year before Ondrej takes Jozef’s education under his own wing. Jozef becomes a full-time shepherd never to return to school.
A few years later, a woman appears on Ondrej’s doorstep. She is a distant cousin to whom Ondrej was close while growing up, and she has a boy with her around Jozef’s age. Destitute and desperate, the woman asks Ondrej to take responsibility of her son, whose name is Marian. Ondrej agrees, and Marian, who goes by the nickname Zlee, becomes Jozef’s best friend, brother, and confidant.
The next spring Zlee accompanies Ondrej and Jozef to the mountains with their flock of sheep. He immediately takes to the herding lifestyle, speaking English, and listening each night to Ondrej read his books aloud. Zlee also takes to hunting. Under Ondrej’s tutelage, Zlee and Jozef become expert shooters. As he and Zlee reach their teen years, Jozef starts to notice that his father seems to be changing: his discipline loosens, he sleeps later in the morning, he does not seem to be as keen as he should be. Jozef eventually discovers that Ondrej is struggling with alcoholism.
A more immediate problem presents itself when a mountain lion begins to terrorize Ondrej’s flock. Ondrej decides to assign the task of hunting the lion to Jozef and Zlee. He gives them the Krag rifle, field glasses, and a few days’ worth of food, then he tells them to go up to the ridge where they believe the big cat lives and hunt him down. Jozef and Zlee take a lame ram they were planning to put down as bait, but they are unable to draw out their prey even after three days. Zlee figures out that the mountain lion probably is not interested in a ram tied to a stake—it is a hunter, just like they are. They head back to the camp, but instead of joining Ondrej, they set up at an elevated position where they can survey the whole flock. Jozef takes the rifle and they lie in wait. Eventually the mountain lion comes along, prowling toward the camp. As the sun comes up on the hillside, Jozef aims and takes out the mountain lion in one perfectly executed shot.
They return to Pastvina that winter. It is 1914 and talk of war has taken over the town. The next summer, Jozef’s stepbrothers go off to fight, never to return. Zlee and Jozef are still too young to enlist, so they return to the mountainside with Ondrej. Ondrej is against the war. He says it is only a matter of time before the Americans join and that the Austro-Hungarian Empire is on its last legs. Ondrej’s speeches fail to change Josef’s and Zlee’s minds, however. Jozef has come to believe his father is a “drunk coward.” The next year, 1916, Zlee turns eighteen and decides to enlist. Jozef has someone forge his identification papers so he can do the same. Jozef bids farewell to his father and goes to join the great conflict.
Toward the end of basic training an officer discovers how well Jozef and Zlee can shoot and recommends that they be reassigned as sharpshooters. Jozef and Zlee join an elite sharpshooting unit being sent to the southern front in the war against Italy. After weeks of more training, they are sent to the Soca Valley in northern Italy. When they finally arrive at the front, they have their first opportunity to kill. Zlee and Jozef are left mostly to their own devices as they roam the hillsides, one person shooting and one person spotting, looking for...
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