Pe Ell’s Polish Pioneers

Wigilia potrawy 554
Traditional setting of the Christmas Eve table in Poland
by Przykuta [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5], from Wikimedia Commons

What was life like for the Polish immigrants in Pe Ell, Washington, one hundred years ago? As told in the words of their descendants today, this book preserves their experiences; their joys, their sorrows, and their struggles to make a better life for themselves and their families as they assimilated into a new country and became Americans.

I stumbled across this book at the thrift store this past summer: Pe Ell’s Polish Pioneers by Leo E. Kowalski.  It seemed really obscure but I decided to give it a try.  Lately I’ve been hankering to learn more about local history, beyond Lewis & Clark and Captain Cook (though their stories still excite me), and I’ve been interested in Polish history since encountering pieces of it in college courses.  The lesser known episodes of history are my favorite, so I thought I might like this one, which takes place in Pe Ell, WA, just two counties south of Seattle.

The story begins with an overview of Poland, ca. 1900.  The once-powerful Kingdom of Poland had, in the late 18th century, undergone partitioning by surrounding powers.  This resulted in a loss of sovereignty through the 19th century, with Russian, Austrian, and Prussian divisions left as the remainder.  Poland had once created a constitution – short-lived, but considered to be the first of its kind in Europe – so self-determination was already in the national consciousness even under the rule of Russia and Prussia.  While poverty was a factor in some of the Poles leaving in the 19th century, avoiding Russian or Prussian conscription was also a big motivator for single young men.

Kowalski is a genealogist, not a historian, and perhaps for this reason, the book is written in a very anecdotal and non-linear style, following families and themes more than a strict chronology.  Roughly speaking, it covers the arrival of Polish immigrants in the Pe Ell area in the mid-1870s up through the dwindling township of the post-WWII era.  Using anecdotes shared by other Polish-American descendants as well as his own family stories, Kowalski shows how the pioneers arrived at what was essentially a wilderness and transformed it into a community with a strong Polish character, infused with American culture and interactions with other immigrant groups.

It is hard to rate a book of this nature, so by comparison to similar books I’ve read, I gave it a 3.  Much of the book talks about logging, which was central to the Pe Ell economy and provided jobs to many of the men.  Perhaps this would be more interesting to non-Washingtonians, but for those of us who grow up with the knowledge in other books, it’s not as engaging.  My favorite section was the chapter called “Life in Pe Ell” where we get a glimpse of everyday life for the non-loggers – mainly dawn-to-dusk farming and gardening, interspersed with festive weddings where alcohol, fiddling, and dancing covered multiple days of celebration.

The hard life these people led, quintessential to the pioneer narrative, was not lost on me, either.  What you have to surmise, reading between the lines, was that life in Poland must have been much worse, for these people to come here and embrace American life.  They were not always treated right by their non-Polish neighbors, and through the dangers of logging and farming, they experienced risk of death or injury on a daily basis.  At the same time, they took ownership of their citizenship, their land, and their town, helping each other and contributing to the community.  It’s really motivating to read what they accomplished with so much less (at least, materially and technologically) than we have now.

This book was published in 2007 and makes reference to the Holy Cross Church, which had been built by members of Polish National Catholic Church.  It turns out that the church, like many others, was taken down in 2010 due to its age and apparently no funding to preserve it.  It’s too bad… it was one of the last structures from this book left standing at the time.  I don’t recall ever visiting Pe Ell and would have liked to have seen the church.

Lord of the Flies Revisited

William Golding 1983
William Golding – [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl],
via Wikimedia Commons

However Simon thought of the beast, there rose before his inward sight the picture of a human at once heroic and sick.

Earlier this year, I considered the question “What Is a Classic?”, in part as a mental exercise and in part to determine what I could reasonably talk about on my podcast.  With a detour to Ishiguro, my general conclusion was that classics are determined by the culture, and as “the culture” in a generic sense becomes surpassed by infinite subcultures, the classics will eventually consist of whatever disparate books are revered by those subcultures.

If you’re still with me… I didn’t really talk about the books I, as a subculture of one, consider to be classics.  If I created a personal list of classics, it would not be equivalent to my “axes” or favorites, though there’d likely be some overlap.  I guess that’s because I see the former list evolving as my values evolve, and the latter list comprising fixed milestones.  Anyways, more on that later.

I first read Lord of the Flies as assigned reading, around the age of 13, I think.  I was a faster reader back then, with a higher tolerance of grim plots, having binge-read most of Agatha Christie in my tweens.  That’s not to say I wasn’t disturbed by Lord of the Flies.  But the finer points of the novel were lost on me, and due to the subject matter I wasn’t itching to pick it up again until very recently.

For those who don’t know the premise: A massive war – either WWII or its successor – is being fought, and in the middle of this, a plane full of British boys is shot down over the ocean.  It crashes horrifically on a desert island, leaving the boys without any technology, supplies, or communication with the outside world.  To their mixed terror and delight, they are also left without any grown-ups to tell them what to do.

In an effort to survive, the boys begin organizing themselves, and soon there are two factions: the introspective Ralph, his reluctant sidekick “Piggy,” and all those who follow the rule of the conch shell, versus the aggressive Jack and his loyal following of ex-choir boys.  What begins as a game morphs into a very real battle for resources, shelter, and, most importantly, power.  At the same time, sightings of an ambiguous yet terrifying enemy – known as the Beast – further divide the survivors.

Reading this short novel as an adult, I found much to unpack in the story and so many angles you can read it from.  What had been particularly lost on me as a younger reader was the buildup of horrors from the very beginning.  Something awful happens in nearly every chapter, but if you’re not reading carefully, you might not realize the weight of it.

In chapter one, we have the crash of the plane and the brutal albeit “off-screen” death of the pilot.  In chapter two, “Piggy” is denigrated to being a nonperson, the object of cruel jokes, while the disappearances of several little boys – and the cause of their disappearance – is a tragedy just alluded to.  In chapter three, there is Simon, probably suffering from trauma, who goes off to hide by himself.  This is just the beginning of the book; already the moral breakdown is in motion.

Golding’s style is masterful in both its approach and its execution.  The book is written in third-person but clearly from Ralph’s perspective.  While we have the benefit of an omniscient narrator, we’re also left with the raw, flawed lens of Ralph’s experience.  That is why we are never told Piggy’s real name, and why we always see Jack as if he were standing beside us, but not as if we were inside his head.  The one exception to this is Simon, through whose eyes we are confronted with the most primal horrors of the island, except at the ultimate crisis.  We are “stuck” with Ralph, and through this limitation of the narrative, feel sharply his misery of being stuck on the island.

While Lord of the Flies is a potent human drama, it’s clear from the subtext this is an allegory about the world more than about an island, and about adults more than about boys.  The biggest crime in the book is there is no civilization to return to.  The physical and psychological machinery of WWII has destroyed whatever respect for human life had existed before, while at the same time, Ralph discovers the intrinsic violence of mankind, which depending on your viewpoint is traceable to either evolutionary adaptation or original sin.

Overall I was deeply impressed and still believe Lord of the Flies is a true classic.  The writing alone made me want to drop everything and read everything by William Golding as soon as I can.  Certainly, I’ll be looking for other books by him in the near future.