So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Friday, December 30, 2011

North of the Danube



This travel book of a visit to Czechoslovakia in 1939 is one of three books Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White collaborated on. In this book she photographed and he wrote separately, and they combined their efforts although they did not attempt to match the text to the photos.

Czechoslovakia, which was formed in 1918 in the aftermath of the First World War out of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, was 20 years old and about to be divided up in 1939 between Nazi Germany, Poland and Hungary. Maybe the authors gave a geographic title North Of The Danube to their book because of the uncertainty of the continued existence of the nation.

Bourke-White's cameras capture beautiful portraits of the local people, landscapes and architecture in their last year of peace before the war, including a couple of photos showing the new Nazi presence. Photos used in this book are dated from April 1937 through August 1938 on the Life Magazine website

While Erskine Caldwell is a great writer, his lack of knowledge about the region is obvious. His text is full of vivid descriptions with very little context. As travel book it is good, but it lacks the depth of analysis he was able to bring to You Have Seen Their Faces which he wrote with Bourke-White about tenant farmers in the southern states of the USA. What is evident as they move towards Germany in the eight chapters of this book is the increasing Nazi influence that troubles the Czechs and Slovaks they meet.

They traveled from east to west starting in Uzhgorod which is now the capital of the Zakarpatskaya oblast of Ukraine and end their visit in Prague and Bohemia. At Uzhgorod they hire a chauffeur to drive them to a remote mountain village called Uzhok where years ago the peasants supposedly ate their seed wheat and have no bread, living on oat meal mush. Then they take a train across Slovakia from Kosice to Zilina where Caldwell reports on badly behaving German travelers. They visit almost every corner of this young country and Bourke-White's photos are a snapshot of the country in the two years before the war.

It is not obvious from the book itself how completely their travels were since there is no map and place names are often small towns and villages, some whose names have changed over time. This inspired me to write a Map Review of the book using Google Maps. You can see the completed map review here: http://dld.bz/NotDanube.

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