Nancy Burke read from her book, If I Could Paint the Moon Black (Lakeshore Press, 2014) at Watchung Booksellers recently. Her book is the story of an Estonian woman, Imbi Peebo, and there were quite a few Estonians there, including Imbi. They were gratified that their story had been told, and had some more information for us. We also were treated to an Estonian Apple Cake. When I got home, I read the book, and here is my review.
At the heart of If I Could Paint the Moon Black is the winsome voice of Imbi Peebo. The author, Nancy Burke, casts herself more as a scribe than a storyteller, allowing Imbi’s voice to speak freely, uncensored and uncrafted. The reader learns Imbi’s story from three points of view: 9-year-old Imbi, 77-year-old Imbi, and Burke. The ride gets a little bumpy from time to time as the points of view shift.
In wartime Estonia, Imbi and her family are grateful when the Germans replace the Russians as occupiers. The Germans are good to Imbi and her family, and she sticks to those guns, even after learning about the atrocities of the SS. That is understandable, since without the kindness of German soldiers and citizens, she and her mother might not have survived. The German army is depicted as so benign that Burke feels she has to interject a sterile page of historical fact – there was a concentration camp in tiny Estonia, and Estonian young men were forcibly recruited into the German army. But little Imbi didn’t know that.
Compared to other Estonians, Imbi is well off, given the nightly bombings, the sudden disappearances, and the starvation rations. Her family spends summers on a farm where they bathe in the river and eat well, especially enjoying meat, which is unavailable in the city. Imbi’s schooling continues even when schools are shut down because her mother is a teacher. At their city home, she is blessed with 142 gooseberry bushes, giving her family access to fresh fruit.
This reader will remember the gooseberry bushes. After spending the night in a bomb shelter expecting death by explosion at any moment, then emerging to find a city half destroyed, what does the girl notice? Not the dead bodies, but the gooseberry bushes; they are still standing. Imbi always clings to salvation.
Imbi and her cousins find dead airmen in the cockpits of military planes which crash near her family’s farm. They drag the bodies from the plane and bury them. In reflection, the 77-year-old Imbi doesn’t seem to have suffered any deforming trauma from these experiences, and enjoys telling about the naughtiness of having traded food for the services of a seamstress who turns the airmen’s nylon parachutes into blouses. Her buoyant and unrepentant voice is refreshing.
I read If I Could Paint the Moon Black as I would look at a Grandma Moses painting. The palette is simple and the author has not struggled over transitions and the other stuff of high-fallutin’ writing. Burke lets the rough edges of the story show – the characters which spring out of nowhere and then recede, the “I” which shifts within the same paragraph, the semantic simplicity and lack of context. As a professor of writing, she knows what the rules are, and ignores or defies many of them, giving the story its simple quirkiness.
Whatever the author’s intent, I learned about an ignored corner of recent history, and felt reassured. In the midst of uncertainty and terror, some people slide through on wit, courage, and good will. Such a person was Imbi Peebo. As we read of similar uncertainty and terror today, it is encouraging to know that I might possibly be able to do the same.