Book Review — Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

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Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk is a story of Janina Dusezjko in rural Poland. Tokarczu is a Polish writer, activist, and public intellectual who has been described in Poland as one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful authors of her generation. In 2018, she won the Man Booker International Prize for her novel Flights. Tokarczuk then won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2019. The book is translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Lloyd-Jones translates from Polish and is the 2018 winner of the Transatlantyk Award for the most outstanding promoter of Polish literature abroad. Since this is also an Audible edition, it was read by Beata Pozniak, who is an award-winning actress, film director, published poet, painter, and an Earphones Award-Winning narrator.

I grew up in a predominantly Polish neighborhood on the southeast side of Cleveland. Many of the older people on my street did not speak English and those that did sound a lot like the characters in the book. Janina’s mannerisms and actions seemed familiar to me. She could have been the lady two doors down.  The narrator and the translator both keep the Polish very alive in the book.

Janina is an odd person.  She believes in astrology and goes as far as asking people for their birthdates and birth times.  The birth time is critical, she explains.  She is also very much for animals and against hunting.  When her neighbor dies, she tells people it was revenge from the animals he killed. Fitting too was that her neighbor was a hunter and choked to death on a bone of a recent kill.  She makes up names for people like the dead neighbor she called Bigfoot.  In conversation, she learns to talk to people without referring to them by name.  She also takes on the role of narrator of the story so that the reader will enjoy all her quirks first hand.

Other people start showing up dead in Janina’s remote village in strange circumstances, and Janina is sure she knows who is responsible, but no one wants to listen to the “crazy old lady.” Tokarczuk writes an exciting story which is part murder mystery and part trying to figure out the main character.  Despite her previously mentioned quirks, Janina is intelligent and helps a friend translate William Blake into Polish, which is where the title of the book comes from.  A complex novel of simpler things that are expertly woven together.

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