“Waiting for Stalin to Die” by Irene Guilford. Guernica Editions, 2017, 197 pages
This is exactly what it was like. In her latest book, Irene Guilford captures the essence of the immigrant experience. It is the story of four Lithuanians who settled in Toronto during the years 1949 to 1953 and lived in places familiar to many of her local readers. She presents the dreams, the lives and losses of Vytas, Maryte, Justine and Father Geras, and weaves them together.
Vytas is studying to be a doctor, and although he grieves for his beloved Lidia who died in Siberia, he is pushed into a loveless marriage with the the scheming landlady’s daughter. His work becomes his life, it absorbs him. “He had memory, guilt and grief. There was no room for love.”
Maryte lives with her younger brother, a simple boy, at Mrs. Moynahan’s, where another Lithuanian boarder, Steponas, is strangely attractive (“women were drawn to the deprivation pulsing like heat”). He has “leverage” with the landlady and saves the orphan siblings from being evicted.
Justine, a pianist, was neglected by her mother and raped by soldiers during her journey from Lithuania through Germany. She is protected by her uncle Povilas, but she cannot resurrect her musical career as a pianist and falls into a depression. Dr. Vytas pushes her to go on living “for those who didn’t”. “You belong to all of us now, not just to yourself.” She marries Steponas and has their baby, whom she cannot love as much as she does her star piano pupil.
Father Geras’ mission is to hold the community together, and he buys land to provide a new place – not only to “honour those who had stayed” (the Lithuanian cemetery), but to build a new church, a museum, a newspaper, a school – to help the newcomers flourish. “Working and waiting, keeping hearts and memories alive, they would not forget who they were or where they had come from.”
In an acute portrayal of family life, life in boarding houses, in the Lithuanian community and the parish, Guilford uses touching imagery (“His eyes held the vastness of the ocean he had just crossed.”), as well as a sophistication of language and an intricacy of theme that takes the reader beyond any ordinary immigrant story. We see clearly how the newcomers share the gnawing pain of longing, the guilt of leaving lives and loves behind, how they “clung together in the fierce closeness of a people far from home”, thinking their life here was temporary.
The author brings to light the menial work, the language barrier, the discrimination against immigrants and women, class differences and human emotions – all of which her characters endured. They are universal, and also personal to us. We may have heard snippets of these feelings and experiences from our parents and grandparents, and we may have forgotten them, but they are in our hearts and now we know them in a very concrete way. She has completed the picture.