Reviewed by M.D. Walters
The residents of Hegewisch harbor painful secrets, perplexing little mysteries, and big ambitions – all tangled up in a clash of the old world and the new. But in post-World War I Chicago, battle-scarred Polish immigrants hold tight to their secrets and traditions, and are intent on outmaneuvering bootleggers who compete for the strategically placed village. In the middle is the conflicted, clever heroine who fearlessly moves between cultures and propels the engaging historical fiction, Tied with Twine, by Chicago native Pam Records.
Drawing on stories curated from her own family history, Records takes us through a fascinating time of change in the city. The south side teams with immigrants who seek refuge and solace in America. Thirsty, working-class Poles made Hegewisch home and seem to be an easy conquest to the Italian and Sicilians from Back of the Yards. Their Prohibition-era marketing plans call for addiction, intimidation, and violence, but they underestimate their Polish customers who have survived worse. And everyone—except ailing healer Baba and the resourceful Stach—underestimate the girl, Halina.
Headstrong Halina wants nothing but to escape Hegewisch and her brooding father, Fryderyk; her diminished mother, Mary; and selfish sister, Patricz. But the hidden poker winnings she saved to fund her departure have been stolen. The pleading note left behind is the first clue that many people in Hegewisch will depend on Halina. We quickly learn that both earthly and mystical forces have plans for her.
As Halina searches for clues regarding who stole her train fare, we meet the residents of Hegewisch, whose stories and needs intertwine. Baba, the prickly healer who learned her craft from Romanian gypsies, must pass on care of the locals and has chosen the reticent Halina as her successor. A woman with her own secrets, Baba presses Halina to understand the beckoning visions that swirl in her head, learn the healing teas, and accept the destiny the old woman has laid out for her. Stach, a handsome former art professor from the old world, monitors the goings on in the village from his perch at the newsstand and keeps a watchful eye on Halina. A resourceful and compassionate man, he’s the secret Santa of the village who quietly fulfills the needs of the young, the old, and the damaged.
Halina’s older sister’s own secret won’t stay hidden for long. Patricz, a barmaid at The Corner Tavern, has crossed more than one line and now must trick her Italian lover, Joey, into marrying her. Patricz convinces Halina to help save Joey’s life after he is stabbed, intent on ensuring a husband for her and a father for her unborn child. Too self-absorbed, she can’t see that Joey is a vicious opportunist just waiting to make his move.
But saving Joey’s life only draws Halina closer to her destiny. She moves among the sick and injured Poles, the desire to comfort and heal driven by her curiosity. Soon she has one dirty brown boot in the old world of potions and poultices and the other in the antiseptic environs of the local hospital. She lacks the polished demeanor of the other young volunteers, but this fascinating new world of science and medicine fuels her need for answers quickly.
Her emerging skills as a healer stand out to the enemy as well. Bootlegger Antonio coerces her to treat Margret, a young prostitute at the bustling brothel behind the hardware store. Halina’s naiveté quickly dissolves and she takes enormous risks to save a life of a stranger. The jumbled visions that confused her begin to make sense and stoke her confidence. Saving this life requires all she can muster from modern medicine and Baba’s teachings.
As the Poles struggle with the forces tugging at their future, their secrets begin to unwind and push the conflict forward. Bar owner Augie has mysteriously disappeared, Joey has taken control, and the Italians seem to be gaining leverage. We can’t help but believe that The Corner Tavern is the town powder keg awaiting a lighted match.
It’s Stach who sets off the first big explosion that rattles the bootleggers and the whole village. Surprisingly, the battle inside The Corner Tavern is a familial one, small and deeply personal, but fueled by the rage of secrets long kept and carried out with deadly consequence.
Particularly impressive about Records’ writing is the imagery, which adds richness to her story. A crow that Baba shoos away hints at the reason for her urgency to co-opt Halina. A mysterious, ghost-like face that haunts a window makes us shudder too. The uncontrollable hallucinations that invade Halina’s mind are vivid and we find ourselves searching for clarity alongside her.
The book’s title is significant, regarding how twine tenderly holds together the people and stories of Hegewisch: The amulet around her neck that keeps Halina anchored to the old world; the horrible secret wrapped and buried that binds Fryderyk’s and Mary’s pain; Stach’s comforting crucifix, wrapped in paper and twine; and Halina’s quickly constructed grave marker of thread and twigs.
The reader meets a wide array of personalities in the book, some crucial to the plot and others who add color and contrast. But be prepared. About 60 pages in Tied with Twine will grab you with both hands and not loosen its grip. The lump in your throat tightens and your heart beats faster as both dark and light compete for the future of Hegewisch and all the people we meet in it.
Records, who grew up in the shadow of the giant steel mills of Munster, IN, builds a firm foundation from her Polish roots and adds solid research to weave her compelling tale. If you love Chicago history, like to root for the underdog, have a Polish heritage, or enjoy discovering a promising new writer, Tied with Twine binds it all together into a wonderful package.
Tied with Twine is available on Amazon, at the Indigo River Publishing site and most bookstores.
M.D. Walters is a marketing executive who divides her life between Chicago condo living and the suburbs of southern Illinois near St. Louis. Yes, there is something in Illinois beyond The City. Typically, she enjoys non-fiction on a varied range of people, events and times past. Her nightstand stack has expanded in recent years to include more fiction and particularly, historical fiction, which feeds her interest in history, good research and thoughtful story telling.