In a country where the overwhelming majority are descended from immigrants, and where immigration policy has always been a hot-button issue, it’s no wonder that the immigrant’s story has had lasting appeal. Whether we’re looking in the mirror or back three centuries, we do so through a common lens. Wherever we came from, and however we came, gaining a foothold here has challenged us all. Survival, much less success, has required ingenuity and perseverance — and/or luck.
Ivan Cox, a Vineyard Haven resident whose paternal forebears immigrated from Poland in 1911, has been intrigued by his family’s backstory as long as he can remember. In his new novel, “Blood Pudding,” published this year by Fulton Books in Meadville, Pa., Cox fictionalizes his family’s first years near Pittsburgh. In a Note to the Reader, we’re told that the manuscript was discovered in 1990, when the author, the model for Cox’s actual father, died. With it was a note requesting that it not be read until 2020, 100 years after the death of the author’s mother. A clever conceit.
Eva and Ignaz Malinowski left Poland 1911 with five children, including the newborn Tadeusz (Tad), who narrates this story of the family’s first 14 years in the U.S. When Eva died at age 35 after bearing two more children in this country, the family lost its footing, each of them fighting a constant battle to stay afloat, let alone move forward. The details of their struggles make for difficult reading at times, even as we’re often warned that things are going to get worse — which they do. Despite this unusual foreshadowing, though, we keep reading, drawn along by both the story and the compelling telling of it.
At the top of the food chain is Jumbo, as Ignaz is known, a huge, coarse bully who intimidates his children and anyone else who confronts him. He’s also a smart, entrepreneurial hustler whose schemes almost pay big dividends before they almost always crumble. A miner by trade, he was also a musician, a bootlegger, and a drunk. His treatment of women is monstrous.
While most of the story takes place after Eva’s death, her presence lingers. A talented beauty with a huge heart, she was widely admired, and not only for putting up with the brutal circumstances that Jumbo forced upon her by constantly impregnating her.
Max, the eldest child, is a self-centered troublemaker who distances himself from the family as soon as he is able — mostly. Following him are Vera and Lucy, who are forced into housework and caring for their younger brothers prematurely after Eva dies. Vera’s obligations go further.
Next comes Zigmund, or Ziggy, whose severe mental challenges require nearly constant care, which falls to his younger brother Tad. Neither of them attend school, Ziggy because of socialization issues, Tad because he must care for Ziggy. Finally there are Kazmir and Kasper, the latter known as Blizzard, so named by Ziggy because the baby arrived during a blizzard.
A fortuitous encounter with a social worker lands Tad in school, finally, at age 10, where he flourishes. His misfortunes continue, even mount though, and his future hangs in the balance — heavily weighted by stifling poverty, a violent run-in with a purported benefactor, and a disabled leg. Though he includes the whole family in his account, Tad’s story is at the crux of “Blood Pudding” — if and how he will survive.
“I always thought I’d be a writer,” Cox said recently, adding that he was an English major in college. He’s also an accomplished pianist, as witnessed by some 30 Islanders at the West Tisbury library on Thursday, July 28. Before he read from “Blood Pudding,” he read a snippet from “Cruise Ship Doctor,” an earlier novel, then moved to the piano, where he played a Chopin nocturne — from memory. He explained that he wanted to change the mood from a chuckle per page to a tear per page. Going by his stethoscope name of Dr. Gerald Yukevich in these parts, he has also been very active at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, both on stage and as a board member. Why the pen name? “I just think pen names are fun,” the author said. The one he chose combines his slavic background through Ivan, his mother’s Scots background via Cox.
Whether Ivan or Dr. Gerry, the author was always fascinated by his family’s larger-than-life characters, as described to him by his father, “who was haunted by his family and his background.” Though he became a successful physician, the elder Yukevich feared being sent back to Poland to the end of his life. Inexplicably, he never became a U.S. citizen.
With a trove of family lore in his back pocket, it took a nudge from his daughter Anna for the author to take on “Blood Pudding” three years ago. The writing took two years, the editing one. Its completion has left him with the satisfaction of “preserving a little bit of where we all came from,” providing his family’s next generation with a sense of their heritage. “It warms my heart to know that they have the book to refer to,” Cox/Yukevich said.
As an example of a typical immigrant family’s struggle to make it in America, “Blood Pudding” is much more than one family’s record. Better yet, it’s a gripping story written with confidence and, despite some grim details, with joy.
“Blood Pudding,” available at Bunch of Grapes bookstore and Edgartown Books.