It might seem strange to begin and end a book about a soldier and a World War with mothers sacrificing themselves for their infant sons, the way Andrew Krivak does in The Sojourn. But these moments contrasts the lengths that a parent will go through to make sure their child lives against the willingness for politicians and generals to throw those lives away in the trenches of World War I.
Jozef Vinich’s mother threw him off a bridge when he was only a few months old to save him from being crushed by a train. After his mother’s sudden death and his father’s decline, Jozef moves back to the old country: Slovakia. It wasn’t Slovakia then. It wasn’t even Czechoslovakia. Jozef’s family’s bad luck lands him in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in time for him to be old enough to enlist in the army in 1916.
Jozef tells us his life story, from his days helping his father herd sheep in the mountains near what is now called Bratislava through the end of the war. Reading The Sojourn feels like sitting down with a grandparent to hear a war story that they’ve never told anyone. (In fact, that’s how this book is framed. Jozef is telling his story from 1972, so we know he survives the war.) Jozef tells us about his eagerness to leave his village and his hateful step-relatives and his excitement at becoming a scharfschütze, a sniper, for the Austro-Hungarian Army, with his adopted brother, Zlee.
As snipers, Jozef and Zlee live charmed lives—at least until 1917 when their luck runs out. By the end of the war, the Austrian, Hungarian, and German forces were near spent. Supplies are scarce. The Italian and British soldiers they’re up against on the Italian Front seem endless. Their commanders have no idea what to do other than order pointless and costly last stands and charges. Frankly, it’s a miracle that Jozef survived.
When everything seems to be conspiring to kill Jozef, I kept thinking back to the beginning of the book when his mother dramatically saved his life and was killed by a train and the ending of the book, in which a young Roma woman sends her infant son with Jozef before she dies. These mothers want their children to live, in spite of all the odds against it. Their determination makes the casualties of World War I seem like an even bigger waste than they usually do. The trenches of the Western, Eastern, and Italian Fronts were full of mothers’ sons. Seeing so many of those sons die because of bad leadership and bad luck makes their mothers’ sacrifices just that much more tragic.
The Sojourn is a brief but deeply affecting read. Jozef’s narration of his miraculous story was so detailed that I felt like I was freezing and starving along with him in the Alps and the Dolomites. My heart was in my mouth whenever he had to face down Italian snipers or provide covering fire for his comrades against enemy machine guns. This is one of the best World War I novels I’ve read.