Ivan Melezh’s People of the Marsh/People in the Swamp is set in the poor Belarusian countryside, in a village far away from anywhere, after the revolution in 1917. It draws a beautiful picture of the swamp with its poor and uneducated people. Even though the days follow a certain pattern, a lot of changes are about to happen to everyone in the villages of the Polesian lowland.
The story mostly follows the lives of two Polesian families, especially through the eyes of the son, Vasil, and the daughter, Hanna. It’s a struggle for both of the families to get by. Getting food on the table for every hungry mouth is a daily chore. At the same time the poor peasant families are being introduced to new ways; children will have to be educated, and a road will be built to connect the swamp people to the rest of the surrounding world. Times are a-changin.
Vasil knows that Hanna is the one for him. Their story reminds me of a modern day soap opera; they can’t become an everlasting loving couple, because it would change the foundation of the whole story. Vasil’s archenemy is obviously also interested in Hanna, although his family does not support this courtship. He comes from a wealthy family, and Hanna comes from an extremely poor peasant background. Her family struggles to get food on the table for the wedding guests.
Getting through one day at a time, season to season, the book is, despite my expectations, a fast read. The pace of life of the villagers is old-time romantic. The changes to communism sneaks up on the reader so pleasantly, and the flow in the book makes it an enjoyable read. It is the first part of the trilogy, and if I can get my hands on the other two, I will definitely read them.
It feels like not much is happening, but then again everything is changing. It’s like life in general in many places. When you look back at your life you realize how things have changed. Life sneaks upon you and whether you want it or not, things change. At the end of the book both Vasil and Hanna feel like everything is gone. It is over. Or maybe it isn’t.