Review: The Tide King by Jen Michalski

Local author Rosalia Scalia kindly offered to review "The Tide King," a new novel by Jen Michalski, and Read Street took her up on it. She has high praise for the latest from Michalski, a Baltimore resident who has been nominated for Pushcart Prize, is the founding editor of the online literary review jmww and co-hosts The 510 Readings. (Goodreads has a giveaway drawing in progress for the book, and if you'd like to attend a reading, Michalski is scheduled to appear July 14 at the Barnes & Noble at Johns Hopkins University.) Scalia's review:

Jen Michalski's long-awaited novel, winner of the Big Moose Prize, promises to be an important book in the American lexicon. Set in Baltimore’s Canton neighborhood and on the Eastern Shore, in New York, and in Poland and Germany, the novel spans the early 1800s, touches on World War II  and slides into present. It swirls around an herb Stanley Polensky's mother gives him just before he goes to war to battle the Nazis, urging him to eat it when he thinks he's about to die. Stanley instead feeds the herb to one of his badly injured fellow soldiers and the story takes off from there. 

The herb — burnette saxifrage — does exist, growing on dry grounds in temperate parts of Europe and Western Asia. The plant, also known as pimpinella saxifrage, is considered helpful in treating wounds, easing digestion, assisting with respiratory problems and kidney and urinary diseases, whereas the root is an anti-inflammatory. In short, this industrious little miracle herb provides many healing qualities. In the novel, Michalski wraps the plant’s healing abilities into a cocoon of unexpected magic when in 1806 in the highlands of west Reszel, Poland, Ela Zdunk and her mother Barbara — who are considered witches by the villagers, but who really are healers — search the forests for herbs to make their tinctures. They find the burnette saxifrage in a clearing charred by a lightning strike and the child Ela raises the possibility that the herb could be different having survived the lightning. The healing properties imbued in the tincture Barbara prepares offers a surprise gift:  eternal life. But is this a blessing or a curse?

Years later, Safine Polansky presses the herb into Stanley’s hands, saying, “You take it when you are about to die. You will live. This is the only one. You understand?” Any mother whose son is about to go to war can understand her desperation. Yet when she advises her son of burnette saxifrage’s promise, neither one understands its power or how it works, and this is what the reader learns as the story unfolds. What evolves is a telling exploration of the pain that comes with being different, whether it’s in size, experience or lifestyle. The story also explores how being different can impact one’s perspective, especially when it comes to all kinds of love and the myriad guises of loneliness. Michalski’s characters experience pain and hurt, battle despair, embrace self-loathing, connect and disconnect to each other. Even those who’ve ingested Barbara’s powerful herb are not spared the struggle of being human, despite the unexpected state of immortality.

Michalski deftly juxtapose two characters who on the surface seem similar in that they both possess childlike characteristics. Although they never meet, both the child Ela and Cindy, Polansky’s lover and common-law wife, share similar physiques in that they are both small. Ela, who remains an immortal 9-year old child, longs for her body to mature into womanhood so she can love and be loved by one man, whereas for Cindy, a normal functioning woman who happens to be a Little Person, desires the love and adoration of many, easily shedding the man who loves her and her own child without a glance back. Ela wants to die, and Cindy wants to live forever.

It's easy to see why "The Tide King" won the Big Moose Prize. Aside from the unstoppable story and unforgettable characters, Michalski’s writing is eloquent and lyrical. She easily describes magical events so that they seem believable, and her work gives a nod to literary giant Tim O’Brien, echoed in the section titled 1943: “They carried what they could carry. Most men carried two pairs of socks in their helmets, K-rations in their pockets, their letters and cigarettes in their vests.”  

Then a few pages later: “Some other men came over and smoked their own cigarettes. Everyone was dirty and smelled and shivered. Some cried. Some prayed, their mouths wide and moving. Some went through the pockets of the Germans and put watches, cigarettes, soft-edged pictures of girls into their boots and helmets. Stanley smoked his cigarette and wished he could tell his mother he was alive.”

Unlike O’Brien, Michalski creates a tale that sweeps history by marrying icons of childhood nightmares such as witches, magic, and children struggling on their own to the icons of adult nightmares: war battles, socially sanctioned violence and murder, success and failure in love, success and failure in connecting meaningfully with others, and the mind-numbing, soul-sucking daily grind.

In short, this book about the passing of time will make you impatient to discover what happens next. The other joy sparked by this book is recognizing familiar locales in Baltimore and Fells Point. They provide an extra treat, a view of the familiar through the eyes of an east Baltimore boy, Stanley Polensky, and thereby through the eyes of one of the city’s most gifted scribes.

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