A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is the story of a father and her two daughters. Two years after the mother dies, he announces that he’s marrying a woman half his age. The family is of Ukrainian descent, and this new bride-to-be is from Ukraine; the father explains that he’s “saving” her from a miserable life in Ukraine. He’s old, he’s behaving irrationally, and he’s obstinate. But it doesn’t take the daughters long to realize that the whole thing is a scam, and the heavily made-up doll with enhanced breasts is simply after a British passport, sending the father through a very late second sexual awakening – of sorts, well, he gets very tactile. And by the way, the woman is the complete opposite of their departed mother. Obsessed with luxury, she’s not that interested in cooking or housekeeping; seems to flirt with all the males in the village.
Every now and then, the narration switches back to how the family initially arrived in Britain after working in a labour camp in Germany in the wake of World War II. The narrator, the younger daughter, sympathetically compares the fate of the Ukrainian bride to their family history. She is of a more sensible type, not only because she’s an academic and espouses leftish views, but also because she likes to give things full consideration, unlike her opinionated big sister. I found the narrator honest and sincere. My favourite scene in the novel is when the two sisters remember the story of the lady in the fur coat on the train to England, right before Christmas.
There are also reminiscences of Stalin’s planned famine and the purges in the Soviet Union; we are spared the horrible details. Actually, the dark family secret in the Correction Block of the labour camp, which the narrator has been trying to worm out of her older sister, is never fully revealed, but simply glossed over at the end. I believe the author wanted the overall tone of the novel to be cheerful.
Where the title comes from: the father is an engineer. He’s a very pragmatic person, full of “crazy ideas,” a bit too pragmatic even. Throughout the course of the novel, he writes a book on the evolution of tractors. The book is in Ukrainian, and incorporates social and economic history with technological developments. I guess that feature was not entirely necessary but it adds colour to the book.
The novel is very well written – Marina Lewycka’s first novel. The dialogues are hilarious, the descriptions vivid, and I believe the author has struck a fine balance in terms of the discourses on immigration. And such rich vocabulary – I learned a new word: fishwife (curious etymology). The novel doesn’t have literary or intellectual aspirations but it’s a perfect holiday book. I can’t believe 10 years have passed since it was published, I remember it in bestseller charts like it was last year. Well, I have already looked up Lewycka’s other novels 😉