Hildegard von Bingen
Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), whose writings and music are integral to the novel, was trained by an anchoress named Jutta and, in the book, is one herself. An anchoress is a female hermit a woman who, for religious reasons, voluntary shuts herself off from the world. Although information on Hildegard confirms that she chose to emulate Jutta throughout her life, it is not clear that she was an anchoress herself. In fact, considering her achievements include founding two convents in what is now Germany it seems unlikely she was. What she most certainly was though is a woman of deep conviction and multiple talents - a writer, composer, visionary and mystic. Although not a canonized saint within the Catholic church, she is often referred to unofficially as a saint. More about Hildegard.
Julian of Norwich
The title of the book is taken from the writings of another anchoress, Julian of Norwich, author of Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love. Though she is revered by Catholics, as well as some in Protestant denominations, very little is known about her life. There is a church in Norwich, England that is dedicated to her life and influence, and one of T.S. Eliot's poems, "Little Gidding," also quotes this statement of Julian's which Wodicka uses as the title of his novel.
A Domenico Ghirlandaio painting features prominently in Burt's story: he carries a wallet-sized copy of the c1485 double portrait with him everywhere. The painting is referred to as the Portrait of an Elderly Man with His Son in the book, magnifying its connection to Burt's relationship with his son, Tristan. The original painting is located in the Louvre, Paris.
Burt's mother-in-law, Anna Bibko, is an important secondary character in the book. She faces her own historical and cultural demons as a descendant of the persecuted Lemko people of eastern Europe. Historically, the Lemkos occupied the Carpathian mountain region that borders Poland and Ukraine. Between 1944 and 1947 the region was entirely depopulated by the the Soviet Union and the land was devastated, in order to deprive the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which was fighting against the Polish People's Army, of support. After 1956, some Lemkos returned home, where they now share the land with Polish settlers who moved into the area in the interim; but most of the estimated 1.5 million Lemkos worldwide (including the estimated 60,000 living in Poland) are spread far and wide, living as isolated minorities, making it challenging to keep their unique culture and language alive.
The most famous Lemkos you're likely to have heard of is Andy Warhol (born Ondrej Warhola) whose parents emigrated to the USA shortly before he was born from what is now North-East Slovakia.
More about the Lemkos at the Encyclopedia of the Ukraine and Lemko.org, which includes a 2002 BBC article about the Lemko people's fight for survival.
This article was originally published in April 2008, and has been updated for the
January 2009 paperback release.
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