Another stunning debut. I shake my head in wonder at these initial offerings – that they can be so deep and moving, so complete and polished. The Sojourn plunges us into the unfathomable catastrophe of The Great War, and renders real the experience of a young soldier, a trained sharpshooter in the service of Charles, the last Habsburg emperor. This is war, as waged by a single soldier and a few of his comrades, as directed by the foolish and obsolete powers that be. History’s most horrific meat grinder.
Jozef is born to Czech parents in 1899, in Pueblo, Colorado, but grows up in the “far northwestern corner” of Austria-Hungary when his widowed father flees to the Old Country. The story of his youth, idyllic while he works as a shepherd with his father, brutal and petty when he attends school, reminds me strongly of Jeffrey Lent’s descriptions of bucolic labor in In the Fall. Author Andrew Krivak employs the same unvarnished language to describe the high refinement of a man’s skills in shaping, and being shaped by, nature. These passages impress upon us the almost superhero heights these skills can rise to.
The war ends all that. Deployed as a skilled marksman for a time, Jozef at length becomes just another infantryman, fodder for cannon fire. Mr. Krivak portrays his sojourn into Europe during its most terrifying and hopeless war in magisterial language: he lets the carnage and waste speak for themselves while he captures it through Jozef’s eyes. This book will take its place among the classics that deal with this war, it has to. This is plainly why it was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award, and for the Julia Ward Howe Book Award given by the Boston Authors Club. It won the Chautauqua Prize and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, all of which is richly deserved.
Mr. Krivak places his war-as-waste theme in the perfect frame of young Jozef’s life. He sustains the story with a plot that never flags and never runs into the outlandish. He exercises firm control over the elements of the story, and never intrudes in its ghastly and memorable events. An excellent and highly recommended debut work. Superb!