Bernice L. Rocque. Until the Robin Walks on Snow. Trumbull CT: 3 Houses, 2012. Print.
Until the Robin Walks on Snow is great little story about a miracle baby—and an excellent portrayal of a family of recent immigrants to the United States circa 1922. The author tells us a fictionalized account of her family’s experiences. Although set some forty or so years later in history, its style is reminiscent of the Little House on the Prairie books though Until the Robin Walks on Snow shares the actions of the adult characters.
What one could consider the main character does nothing much but eat and sleep. The story focuses on the birth and infancy of the author’s Uncle Tony—Antoni in Polish, but they made sure his birth certificate said it the “American” way, Anthony. Antoni was a preemie, only one and a half pounds at birth. This was before any neonatal care units. Premature babies at this time had about a 5% chance of living. Birth at only a pound and a half even reduced those small odds.
For six weeks after he was born on November 29, his mother Marianna virtually never left his side. She never slept more than three hours at a time. Her midwife and best friend Helena spent most of that time with the family until the following March.
In mid-January in order that Marianna could get more sleep, they placed the baby overnight in a section of their wood and coal-burning stove wrapped in a towel in a basket. Anyone familiar with such stoves in a New England farmhouse knows that these stoves heat the whole house and are tricky to regulate.
Still, Until the Robin Walks on Snow is more than just the story of a baby’s survival. We see the dynamics of a family new to the New World but having opportunities that would have been unheard of in Poland and Lithuania.
Marianna’s husband Andrzej, from a Poland ruled by Russia, came to America after registering for the Russian Army’s draft in 1911. Stories tell us that peasants who were drafted were often coerced into a lifetime commitment and would become cannon fodder in the World War that would begin three years later.
Perhaps the most interesting character is Marianna’s father Nikodimas. Her family had lived in Lithuania near the German border. Her brothers actually crossed the Nemanus River into Germany to go to school. Her mother stayed in Lithuania for almost twenty years as her father at first went back and forth a few times between the Old Country and America. Because of the political and educational realities of where they were brought up, some of the main characters could speak four languages: Polish, Lithuanian, Russian, and German. When they came to the United States, they had to learn a fifth.
At the time Toni was born, Nikodimas, who was a trained carpenter and who had worked at an American rifle factory during the war, now discovered that he could make more money delivering adult beverages “imported” into New York and sold to Connecticut speakeasies.
Nikodimas was not worried about being arrested because he said that the police and authorities for the most part did not like the Prohibition law. It gave him a chance to earn more money than he otherwise would have.
We also hear of the faith of the entire family, both men and women as they pray for Antoni and support each other in taking care of him and his older brother and sister. Their prayers to God, to Mary, and to the Archangel Michal [their spelling] are answered.
Because of the serious nature of the baby’s condition, midwife Helena stayed with Marianna’s family until spring. She had no children at the time, but her husband was not happy with the arrangement. There is, then, additional conflict as well, but the main effect of the story is one of faith and family and how not only a premature baby survived but how an immigrant family, relatively speaking, thrived in their adopted homeland.
I am not giving anything away to say that the author recently informed readers that her Uncle Tony celebrated his ninety-third birthday last week! A miracle child indeed! And a tender, endearing story tells us how he came into the world.