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When Eagles Die

Reviewer: Patricia A. Gajda

By Robert Ambros. Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse, 2004. 240 pages. ISBN 1418489875. Hardcover $29.50; paper $17.50.

Robert Ambros takes his readers on a journey of discovery in which his main character, Joe Bartkowski, comes to understand his connection to his Polish roots. On the same journey, the reader gains insight into the extended effects of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and finds that Bartkowski's story is the story of Everyman.

Joe, an extremely successful college basketball coach at the pinnacle of his career, turns away from the lucrative contracts offered by prestigious universities and takes a job at a smaller college as he finds himself suffering unexplainable and increasingly debilitating symptoms and behaviors. He suffers from panic attacks, assorted anxieties, and feelings of his own inadequacy and overprotectiveness toward his daughter. When treatments for ostensible midlife crisis prove unsuccessful, he moves on to a highly recommended doctor who, Joe later learns, conducts research on the effects of PTSD in the children of those who had experienced the trauma firsthand.

Long before his father died, Joe had dismissed the Second World War veteran as a hopeless drunk. He had heard that his grandfather had been in both world wars and that his uncle, after whom he had been named, perished in the Second World War, but Joe never took an interest in these things and, besides, his father had not wanted to talk very much about them. Now Dr. Matthews's inquiry about Joe's relationship with his father provides the doorway through which the patient hesitantly steps. He begins to question family members about his father and surfs the Internet in search of information about the Polish wartime experience. He finds discussion groups with like-minded people and he discovers that recent research suggests that symptoms of PTSD could be passed on to G2, the second generation.

Nearly half of the book is devoted to the experiences of Joe's grandfather Stanisław Bartkowski, Sr., and Joe's uncle, Stanisław's son Stasiek. The grandfather had served in the Russian army during the First World War until 1917, when the imperial army was disintegrating and he joined Joseph Piłsudski's force, Legiony Polskie. Joe's later investigations show that Stanisław had been imprisoned and deported by the Russians, like many from eastern Poland after the Soviet Union invaded their country at the beginning of the Second World War. He died in the Katyn Forest massacres. Joe does not learn, but the reader does, that Uncle Stasiek was deported by the Soviets in 1940 because his father was a Colonel in the Polish Army. He escaped from captivity and on the way encountered the hospitality of Poles living in the Soviet Union, descendants of people who had been sent to Siberia after unsuccessful insurrections in the nineteenth century. In the end, he was recaptured and forced to work in the gulag quarries where he was shot to death. With each discovery, Joe's symptoms abate. He reconnects with his Catholic tradition and he takes his mother and daughter to Italy. Here he visits Monte Cassino, the famous Benedictine Monastery and site of the victory scored by Polish troops under General Anders fighting for the Allies in 1944. He visits the grave of the man who had died there after saving Joe's father. He returns home after a delay caused by cancellation of all flights to the United States in the wake of terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The old anxiety about traveling is gone. He solves the budget problem awaiting him upon his return to work with a new commitment and creativity. He relinquishes the fears that made him overprotective of his young daughter.

Ambros tells the story well in this sequel, of sorts, to his earlier award-winning novel The Brief Sun. His evocation of the Cossacks in battle against imperial German forces is stunning. He shows how deeply imprinted on the national spirit are the gems of wisdom found in the Polish culture, historical and literary, that are quoted and invoked under myriad circumstances. He develops his male characters, especially those from earlier generations of Barkowskis, and depicts them as full of life, honor, strength, and soul.

He strains, however, when trying to project, beyond Joe, the connectedness of generations and the possibilities of acquiring PTSD symptoms from forebears who first experienced them. For example, the novel opens with a chapter set in Georgia in 1921 (this is reminiscent of Andrzej Wajda's cinematographic rendition of Stefan żeromski's Przedwiośnie, which likewise begins with a scene on the Black Sea). The beautifully and sympathetically written account shows us a young black man, Dale LaFave, successfully escaping unjust captivity and going to Philadelphia. Later, we find that Joe has recruited a basketball player from that city, Lamar LaFave, who is the escapee's great-grandson. He, too, is wrongly charged with a crime and succeeds in clearing himself. The implication is that he acquired characteristics of young Dale, who had been exposed to trauma before him. In a similar vein, we are meant to believe that Joe suffers from PTSD after we read wartime accounts about his grandfather and uncle. Although these are the best-written portions of the book, the author would have done better to find some device to tell us instead about Joe's father's traumatic wartime experiences and postwar behaviors that might have unconsciously influenced Joe when he observed them as a boy. Until more studies can be done on this psychological phenomenon, however, it merely appears at this time to suggest the existence of a Jungian collective unconscious soup that Lamar, or anyone else, can dip into.

The imagery of the eagle in the Polish national iconography is not overtly pursued despite the book's title. Eagles figure in only two references. The first is Joe's offhand remark that recruiting new athletes is about "finding eagles among the crows." The second is near the end of the book when Joe learns that the soldiers fighting with wartime General Wladyslaw Anders were known as his eagles.

Outside the wartime chapters, the most odious of characters is the erstwhile history professor Blackwell, Joe's new associate dean. He instructs Joe about the Polish experience in a lengthy conversation, but he does so with so much distortion, cynicism, and suspicion of conspiracy that the reader easily dismisses the authenticity of his information. Joe himself wonders whether Blackwell suffers from the effects of PTSD.

A short preface or introduction revealing the author's inspiration would have improved this book. On the other hand, the inclusion of a bibliography is confusing at the end of a work of fiction. A list for suggested readings or related readings would have been better. Minor errors of proofreading are all forgivable, except the one that misspells the name of Adam Mickiewicz. Overall, however, this reviewer hopes that Robert Andros has more stories of Poles and Polish Americans to tell. ∆

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