Boxes of the True Past

  • Norman Ravvin
    The Girl Who Stole Everything. Linda Leith Publishing Inc. (purchase at
Reviewed by Eli MacLaren

“Theft. It had the power to reorder the world in interesting ways” (196). So thinks Nadia Baltzan, a UBC music student, as she leaves a Vancouver park one evening, carrying a box that a friend has stolen for her from an auction house. Inside the box is a glass bottle that was used as an impromptu weapon in a pawnshop heist over fifty years earlier. The shopkeeper was killed with it that day in 1962, beaten over the head as he struggled against the thief. The thief got away. The case went cold. The evidence, however—this bottle—did not evaporate. What will Nadia do with the grisly curio? As she walks up Keefer Street, through a gentrifying neighbourhood under a shifting violet sky, we know that this box and its contents have the power to reorder her world. The shopkeeper, a Jew, was her uncle.

The Girl Who Stole Everything is full of such boxes. In stealing things, boxing them up, and burying them, one generation creates time capsules—archives—that the next generation unearths, interprets, and sometimes even restores to a proper, if perplexed, heir. Like Ondaatje, Ravvin presents artifacts as rocks in the current of time, holding onto stories that would otherwise be washed away. These unlikely archives resist oblivion and the liberties that memory takes. They have the potential to disclose something of the true past. Nadia “sniffs and catches a hint—the idea shocks her—of the past. Not a memory of the past. The thing itself” (8). The past is shocking, because it can change who we know ourselves to be, where we know ourselves to belong.

Nadia’s compulsion to learn more about her father’s family draws her to the scene of the crime—36 West Cordova Street, on the edge of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The pawnshop is long gone, of course, but the building that housed it still stands, its windows papered over, its front door boarded up. Not knowing what to do next, she sits down on the curb, opens her case, and begins to play her dulcimer. The dulcimer is a rare string instrument that comes in different shapes and sizes: Nadia holds hers on her lap and strums it. She knows little about it, except that its origin is Eastern European (Jewish and Polish), and that she found this one in a box her father left in the basement when he moved out. Her interpreting something for herself on her absent father’s antique instrument at the building where her uncle died dusts off the glittering theme inlaid on the mundane surface of Ravvin’s novel—the obscure freight delivered to the present by the past.

Her playing also unlocks the building. It turns out that it is not deserted. A man named Simon Hanover, recently purged from the university’s ranks of course instructors, is renovating the space into a coffee house. They have seen each other on campus. Simon invites her in and gives her a tour. Upstairs, he is assembling a private library, a “Clandestine Book Room” (49), out of books that he has inherited from his father. Nadia gives him the book that she happens to have with her, a gift from one of her professors. It is the collection of poems by Adam Zagajewski from which the novel’s epigraph is taken: “You come here like a stranger, / but this is your family home.” The lines are true for her, visiting the pawnshop/coffee house. In this sound box of a novel, in which every point seems to resonate with another and with the whole, they will also be true for him, for, like Nadia, Simon is Jewish and knows little about his family history. He too confronts artifacts that will draw him into a strange true past. When a family friend hands him a photo of his father as a boy in the Polish village of Radzanów, one hundred kilometres northwest of Warsaw, Simon opens a box that will transport him across the Atlantic. There is a girl in the photo, too. The photo has somehow stood against the waves of the Hitlerkrieg, Stalinism, and globalization that have all but washed away the old Jewish presence in Poland. Moving back through these waves, we learn this girl’s remarkable story. It is an archive of archives, the heart of this novel, and, as Simon and Nadia will discover, a miracle.

All of this unfolds in Ravvin’s understated, mellow style, with the unhurried, incremental pace that characterized his last novel, The Joyful Child. Here, as there, the writing is affable, wise, and wry. Characters speak and move with an appealing directness. At the same time, Ravvin is obviously a writer with a tremendous reach and, as in Alice Munro, every detail brims with significance, if one cares to look twice. When Nadia commences her career as a petty thief, of course it is a copy of Miles Davis’ landmark album, Kind of Blue, that she steals: Is not jazz the art of stealing and reordering? A particular make of car popular in Communist Poland carries Simon through the Polish countryside: What better vehicle to drive into the past than a Moskvitch 412 purloined from a Warsaw museum? Then, the English text is laced with Polish names and phrases, suggesting the deep alterity that a foreign language opens in a world that Ravvin simultaneously claims for his characters and his reader. The claim is tender and firm, like a parent’s for a child: Ravvin gives us a recognizable country full of flaws that are endearing, a country with indistinct borders rooted deeply in hope. Assembling the realistically disjointed plot of The Girl Who Stole Everything is ultimately the task for many readings. This one has seized on the dispossession and restitution that seem to alternate throughout—but buy a copy to judge for yourself. I would almost recommend that you steal one.

*Erratum: A previous version of this review appearing online mistakenly listed the title of the review as “Boxes of the New Past.” The title has been corrected to “Boxes of the True Past.”

This review “Boxes of the True Past” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 18 Jun. 2021. Web.

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