12/10/2015. BOOK REVIEW: THE TIDE KING BY JEN MICHALSKI
Jen Michalski is a wonderful storyteller. You could read her novel The Tide King purely for the characters and events that fit in with the reality we know. One reviewer on Amazon said she’d done that, finding the eternal-life-giving herb in the story unnecessary. If you read the novel that way, you’ll be treated to a beautiful piece of writing with well-developed characters and an exciting plot, but you will miss so much.
In her guest blog, “A Jolt of Vertigo,” published on Late Last Night Books last month, Michalski said she found herself writing about the fantastic herb because “sometimes reality is too constricting.” I never thought I would be a fan of magical realism in novels because I’ve always considered myself a true realist, a person who tells it like it is in her writing and her life. But The Tide King showed me how a well-grounded magic element or event allows a story to explore the meaning of what is in ways that otherwise it never could.
The main characters in The Tide King are born more than a century apart in different parts of the world. Ela Zdunk begins her journey in Reszel, Poland, around 1800. Calvin Johnson from Ohio goes off to fight in World War II around 1943. Under normal circumstances, they would never meet, but because they are both fed the magic herb at critical times, each of their lives affects the other’s and the life of a third person not born until 1960.
Ela’s mother feeds her the herb when soldiers come to kill both mother and daughter because they suspect the two are witches who burned down the town. Ela is shot and knows nothing else until she wakes up surrounded by dirt a year later. She finds her mother’s boyfriend, who says her mother was burned because she was a witch. The boyfriend, Antoniusz, knows about the herb and knows that Ela’s mother would want him to take it so he can be with Ela forever, but he won’t eat it because he thinks he failed her mother. “And yet,” he thinks, “it would have been the only fitting punishment, to live forever with the knowledge he had let her die.”
And here Michalski begins to suggest the deeper meanings the herb allows the story to explore.
Calvin realizes his life has taken an unexpected turn when he wakes up in a pile of bodies in the Hürtgen Forest and feels his amputated leg growing back. He’s not sure what happened to him, but the last thing he remembers is his friend Stanley Polensky stuffing something into his mouth. The herb Stanley gives him came from Stanley’s mother, Safine, an immigrant from Reszel.
In the years Ela spends with Antoniusz, she remains the size of a child since her body doesn’t age, but she matures mentally, which allows her to think with the complexity of an adult. After Antoniusz dies, she realizes there is no one else in the world like her. She has no friends, no family. When she meets a young girl named Safine, she encourages her to eat the herb, but Safine is afraid. She accepts the herb as a gift but leaves with her family for America before Ela sees her eat it.
When Calvin returns to Ohio, he tries to resume a normal life, but he can’t. The horrors of the war plague him so that he feels his heart has been left behind. The only person he can relate to is Kate, a fellow student in the college course he takes, but she leaves him to study in New York. Abandoned by his only friend, Calvin goes to Montana to search for Stanley Polansky. An army buddy says he thinks Stanley was going there after the war, and Calvin believes Stanley is the only person who can explain what is happening in Calvin’s life.
Instead of finding Stanley, Calvin dies in a forest fire in Montana, only to wake up again in 1970 without Kate or Stanley, sure that they have both moved on, leaving him alone forever. And for him, forever is truly forever. He understands now that he cannot die and for that reason, his life is permanently changed. He wonders if he had known that he couldn’t die during the war, would he have fought differently. “If they all could not die, what would be the point of the war?” he asks himself. “What would be the point of anything? Death made so many things possible: domination, fear, gratitude. Now he was only scared of living.”
And so the life-giving herb—the touch of magic in the wonder of reality—gives the story the ability to see life in new perspective. If life has no urgency, does it have any meaning? “What if we had more time?” Kate asks. “Would we have cared for each other more than we already do?” Calvin realizes that in his new state of being he will live among people, but not with them. He will not experience the world the way they do, and eventually everyone he loves will leave him.
Ela, more than one hundred years older than he is, has already lived decades without her mother and the boy she wanted to marry. The wisdom of her years means she doesn’t fit in with any of her contemporaries. She’s certainly not happy among the girls who look like her.
But in many ways, Calvin and Ela are no different from mortals. “Everyone is alone,” Kate tells Calvin. “There’s always a loneliness that people can’t fill,” another character says. “You have to make peace with it.” Yet, the magic of the herb causes Calvin, Ela, and others to ask the right questions.
The Tide King is a powerful novel. I recommend it highly.