|SoPhia Zufa: Why God Has Gray Hair|
Press (Multiformat), ISBN 1-59080-145-8
SoPhia Zufa takes us back to the times just after the Great Depression in midwestern America when folks struggled for survival. Hand in hand, we enter Catholic school on the first day and progress until graduation from elementary school. We meet Bertha, the school tomboy, who plays a Marine Band Hohner harmonica when she's not using it as an instrument of self-defense against Martin, one of the Olenik brothers -- the notorious town bullies.
Louis Gopnik and Leonard Bazant, the school clowns, distract us in class and get sent down to Sister Misericordia, also known as Stalin, who carries a yardstick to mete out punishment in the corporal world. We begin Catechism lessons under Sister Coletta and meet Peter Umisel, the dumbest kid in school. When Father Thaddeus appears on Friday, fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and Peter boldly speaks out in class. In preparation for First Confession, we learn the difference between a venial and a mortal sin, and dread meeting up with Father Thaddeus in the dark confessional to unload all the hidden secrets of our wicked little hearts.
But do you remember the day when Loretta Kastell brought her little brother, Edward, to school? Her sister, Lucy was in the hospital giving birth, during Lent, when all the students make the Stations of the Cross after school. Do you remember the look on the face of the Sheriff's wife? Did you hear what she said?
In summer, the Medicine Show comes to town in a black Studebaker with a trailer hitched behind it, with "Doc Wilson's Traveling Medicine Show" written on the side in black letters on red like a Gypsy wagon. Doc and his wife rig up a clothesline with bed sheets hung on it to make a temporary outdoor stage. Doc plays a button concertina while his wife, Dixie strums a banjo and sings along. They sold "Elixir of Balsam made from roots of a rare plant found only in China," guaranteed to cure all the ailments caused by tapeworms. Much later, after the Wilsons depart and school begins, Leonard Bazant brings something to school for Show and Tell, then stays after school to write the Pledge of Allegiance 25 times.
Although nostalgic, the wistful vignettes do not descend to the level of saccharine kitsch. Children confront harsh realities in a world plagued by epidemics with no cure but quarantine. Clementine, the spelling whiz, suffers from scarlet fever; and the doctor isolates Georgie and Katya when they come down with diphtheria. The family doctor makes housecalls and treats grandmother with medicinal leeches.
Reminiscent of Saroyan, Zufa deftly sketches memorable portraits that reflect in the mirrors of our minds. The pages turn easily as we encounter familiar faces, but the voices ring fresh as the October winds that blows the autumn leaves away. Wistfully, we long for the return of spring.
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