My Sister’s Mother: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Stalin’s Siberia by Donna Solecka Urbikas. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin P, 2016.
Review by Nina Anderson.
30 April, 2021
My Sister’s Mother Review
My Sisters Mother: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Stalin’s Siberia by Donna Solecka Urbikas is the nonfiction account of two interwoven stories: the harrowing story of Janina and her daughter, Mira’s, survival in war-torn Poland, their exile to Siberia, and their eventual immigration to the United States, and the author’s own memoir and life story as Janina’s second child who grew up in Chicago. Throughout the book, chapters continually change perspective from Janina and Mira’s in the mid 20th century, back to the author’s present day reflections. These constant changes serve to juxtapose the two experiences and show how Urbikas and her mother can never fully connect or reconcile because of how differently they’ve lived. While Janina was in a Soviet labor camp, cutting tree branches with a dull axe all day just to earn enough food for her daughter, Urbikas was in highschool, upset that her parents would not allow her to join the cheer squad. Urbikas is often embarrassed or annoyed at her mother for talking about her struggles and wishes for a more loving, typically American mother like the ones portrayed on tv. Throughout the book, Urbikas gradually learns from her mother about the strength and resilience it takes to be a mother under any circumstances. Urbikas obviously is not sent to a labor camp, but she does experience loss, cancer, the stress of almost losing a child, taking care of her aging parents, and the mental health struggles of a close family member. As her mother is dying, they share the intimacy of comparable struggle and Urbikas is able to understand her mother, and herself, better than ever before.
Immediately upon inspecting the book, a potential reader (with understandable skepticism) will notice that all of the reviews on the back cover are positive, and are all written by people either associated with Polish organizations like The Polish American Journal or the Polish American Historical Review, or are fellow authors of books pertaining to this period in Polish history like Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, author of Between Nazis and Soviets. This calls into question whether the book is actually well written or if the praise it receives is merely a bit of Polish patriotism. After a closer look, it is discovered that the book was printed by The University of Wisconsin Press in 2016 and that it was a finalist in several Midwest writing competitions. Before the body of the story takes place, there is a single quote on an otherwise blank page, “Whosoever takes the child by the hand takes the mother by the heart.” and on the next page there is the dedication, “For Father who took Mira’s hand and won Mother’s heart.” This sets up the theme of motherhood in the story which is the main idea that drives the plot. How motherhood changes between time periods, how the mother’s trauma affects the child, how mothers and children can relate despite a huge barrier of experience. At one point, one of Urbikas’ sons is diagnosed with an inoperable tumor in his back. The feeling of helplessness Urbikas feels as she is unable to do anything to improve her son’s condition is paired thematically with Janina not being able to help Mira when she becomes ill with typhus and is not expected to live and also when Mira gets malaria. Urbikas describes her feelings during that time, “My brain just kept screaming, I want a normal life for him!” (212). Both Mira and the author’s own son survive, but they both carry scars. The son still has the tumor in his back, and Mira dealt with lifelong mental illness from brain damage she got from high fevers during her illnesses. This shared sense of powerlessness to help their own children is a huge turning point in Urbikas’ relationship with her mother because it allows her to feel a little bit of how Janina felt when she almost Mira.
Overall this is a perfectly fine book about mother-daughter relationships and Polish history, but if you are looking for a book about Siberia, or the experience of people in Stalin’s Gulags you will be disappointed. The book is separated into four parts and an epilogue and only one part, Russia and Siberia, is even partly set east of the Ural mountains. The book is much less about war, exile, and Stalin’s Siberia as the title would suggest, and much more about a woman who grew up in Chicago and has trouble connecting with her Polish mother. Despite a rather misleading title, My Sister’s Mother does have some admirable qualities like family pictures, translations of Polish songs and poems, and an authentic snapshot of survival during the invasion of Poland by the Nazis and the subsequent invasion by Soviet forces. It is a deeply personal story that reads almost like a diary and offers a unique insight into the life of a family.
Urbikas, Donna Solecka. My Sister’s Mother: a Memoir of War, Exile, and Stalin’s Siberia. University of Wisconsin Press, 2016.