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The BookBrowse Review

Published September 20, 2017

ISSN: 1930-0018

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The Signal Flame
The Signal Flame
by Andrew Krivak

Paperback (12 Sep 2017), 272 pages.
Publisher: Scribner
ISBN-13: 9781501126383
BookBrowse:
Critics:
  

The stunning second novel from National Book Award finalist Andrew Krivak - a heartbreaking, captivating story about a family awaiting the return of their youngest son from the Vietnam War.

In a small town in Pennsylvania's Endless Mountains Hannah and her son Bo mourn the loss of the family patriarch, Jozef Vinich. They were three generations under one roof. Three generations, but only one branch of a scraggy tree; they are a war-haunted family in a war-torn century. Having survived the trenches of World War I as an Austro-Hungarian conscript, Vinich journeyed to America and built a life for his family. His daughter married the Hungarian-born Bexhet Konar, who enlisted to fight with the Americans in the Second World War but brought disgrace on the family when he was imprisoned for desertion. He returned home to Pennsylvania a hollow man, only to be killed in a hunting accident on the family's land. Finally, in 1971, Hannah's prodigal younger son, Sam, was reported MIA in Vietnam.

And so there is only Bo, a quiet man full of conviction, a proud work ethic, and a firstborn's sense of duty. He is left to grieve but also to hope for reunion, to create a new life, to embrace the land and work its soil through the seasons. The Signal Flame is a stirring novel about generations of men and women and the events that define them, brothers who take different paths, the old European values yielding to new world ways, and the convalescence of memory and war.

Beginning shortly after Easter in 1972 and ending on Christmas Eve this ambitious novel beautifully evokes ordinary time, a period of living and working while waiting and watching and expecting. The Signal Flame is gorgeously written, honoring the cycles of earth and body, humming with blood and passion, and it confirms Andrew Krivak as a writer of extraordinary vision and power.

C H A P T E R
O N E

A fire in the great stone fireplace was as constant in the house as the lengthening days when Easter was early and spring was late. But on the morning after his grandfather died, Bo Konar took the logs and the log rack in the living room out to the barn, swept the bricks clean of ash, and dusted the andirons so that they looked like thin faceless centaurs of black. Two days later, after supper, he and his mother, Hannah, greeted mourners at the door and led them from the foyer into the living room, where each knelt before the body of the man waked in a pine casket by the window, and said a prayer. Some lingered then in the kitchen and the wide hallway to talk about Jozef Vinich. How he had come to America after World War I with fifty dollars in his pocket, after the gold his father had left him paid for the train from Kassa to Hamburg and passage on the Mount Clay. How he had risen from yard worker to co-owner of the Endless Roughing Mill. How he had acquired and managed two thousand acres of the most sought-after land in Dardan. How he had built the house where they all stood before he had turned thirty, something few men in that corner of northeastern Pennsylvania could have done.

No one stayed long. After Father Rovnávaha said the vigil prayers for the deceased, everyone in that room got up to leave, even the priest, and Bo sat alone in the lamplight on a straightbacked chair. Freezing rain rapped outside against the window glass. The old Lab they called Krasna snuffed and sighed on the floor. Bo hunched forward with his elbows on his knees and stared at his grandfather, dressed in a white shirt, blue suit, and a black tie Bo had never seen before. The face dull and wax-set. The misshapen right hand on top of the left at the breast. That one holding a string of wooden rosary beads. And he wondered why he and his great-aunt Sue would have to take turns sitting up all night with the body, because there was not a chance in hell that this man might just be asleep.

Where did you go? he whispered into the room.

He heard the sound of running water coming from the kitchen and a sharp note of breaking glass, and the memory rose to him through the fatigue, a memory of the evening when his grandfather told him (a boy of ten then) to go on upstairs and get some sleep. It was spring. The cold spring that came after his father had died in what they said was a hunting accident, though his father was never a hunter. The meal over, light still hanging in the west outside, Bo asked why he had to go to bed so early.

Because we're going up to the high meadow with rifles in the morning, his grandfather said.

Bo's mother was rinsing dishes, and out of the corner of his eye he saw the glass she was holding slip from her hand, heard the sound of it shattering against the porcelain sink. Jozef looked over at his daughter, who shook her head as if to say, Please, no. Then back to Bo.

It's time you came with me, Jozef said.

They were up before dawn. There was toast and coffee set out, but his mother was not in the kitchen. His grandfather took the Marlin three-thirty-six and a Remington twenty-two out of the gun cabinet, and Bo thought of his father. His mother said that he had fought in the war in Europe, and the boy wondered if somewhere there might still be war, if it might have come to Dardan. His grandfather handed Bo the twenty-two. He held the rifle by the forestock, checked the safety, and said, Are we going to war?

Jozef stopped and stared at him. No, son, he said.

Bo looked down at the floor, and Jozef said, We're going into the woods to find a dog that has taken a liking to deer. That's all.

Outside they walked past the coop where they kept Duna, a Lab and collie mix, who pushed her nose into Bo's gloved hand. He wanted to ask if she was coming with them, but his grandfather did not slow, so he put his head down and followed. Through the orchard, past the horse paddock, into the woods, the fallen limbs and frozen, hard-packed leaves sounding like thunder beneath them, until they found the old trappers' path and walked along the hard dirt, Bo wondering if he would see anything else for the rest of his life but the creased and faded patterns of brown that tracked like roads on a map in the canvas coat on his grandfather's back.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivák. Copyright © 2017 by Andrew Krivák. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. When young Bo asks Jozef, "Are we going to war?" (page 7), why does Jozef startle? Why might Bo think war has come to Dardan?
  2. In his eulogy for Jozef, Father Rovnávaha points out that Jozef's surname, Vinich, means "vine" in Slovak (page 20). How was Jozef a vine in his family and in the community?
  3. Why does Ann's death push Bo to give up on college (page 50)? Why does Jozef allow Bo to stay without any argument?
  4. After the crash, when Ruth goes to stay with Bo and Hannah, Ruth says to Hannah, "I'm just trying to keep it all together so you don't think I'm some kind of flower girl who was too delicate for your son" (page 154). Why does this worry Ruth?
  5. Bo is pleased to find that the house that Jozef leaves him needs work (page 72), as it provides an "ongoing conversation" (page 163) with his grandfather. Later, Grayson reveals that Sam often had conversations with "the old man," too (page 193). Why is it important to both Bo and Sam to speak to Jozef even though he's not there?
  6. Sam takes Ruth to Grayson so that she can say to herself, "Now there are two things I know" (page 193). What does she already know? And what does she want to know?
  7. When Ruth can't save the pullet from the hawk (page 168) why does it affect her so? Why are the chickens so important to Ruth, and to Hannah?
  8. What does Grayson seem to want Ruth and Bo to understand from his story about the Vietnamese woman who always thought her son was coming home the next day (page 217)?
  9. Hannah measures time "like a whittled stick" (page 215), and Ruth says, "Everyone tells us it'll all work out in time, but whose time?" (page 217). How do Ruth and Hannah treat time and waiting differently? How do they treat them similarly? How does Bo approach time?
  10. Why does Krasna's death loom so large over the family and their friends? How have dogs been important to the Vinich and Konar family?
  11. The Signal Flame has several characters—Jozef, Sam, Bexhet, Walter—who are seen mainly through memories. How do these absent, yet at the same time very present, characters influence other characters and shape the narrative?
  12. Is it fitting that the novel ends with Bo's dream about Sam returning (page 250)? What do you think the dream means?
  13. Discuss the difference between carefulness and carelessness in the novel.
  14. What is the significance of work for the Vinich family?

Enhance Your Book Club

  1. Research Hurricane Agnes and the Great Flood of 1972 and discuss what it would have been like to live along the Susquehanna or Lackawanna River at that time.
  2. Read Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon as Hannah does early on in The Signal Flame (page 29). How does it color your perception of Hannah?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Scribner. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

This slow-burning story shows how members of a close-knit family cope with profound loss.

Print Article

The Signal Flame relates the legacy of multiple generations of the Konars, wealthy land-owners in rural Pennsylvania. It is the second chapter of a story begun with The Sojourn, a novel that was a finalist for the National Book Award. I haven't read the earlier book but still enjoyed this powerful sequel.

The Signal Flame opens in Dardan, a small town nestled in Pennsylvania's Endless Mountains. The family patriarch, Jozef Vinich, an Austro-Hungarian soldier who immigrated to America after World War I, has just died. Bohimur (Bo) Konar, the last remaining son, and his mother Hannah, absorb Jozef's loss as they reel from yet another: Sam Konar, the youngest of the family, has been missing in action in Vietnam for over a year.

In addition to Bo and Hannah, Sam left behind a pregnant fiancée, Ruth Younger, whose family has been at odds with the Konars for generations. The Youngers were once the largest land-owners in Dardan until Ruth's grandfather sold most of the holdings to Jozef to pay off gambling debts. The Youngers have always believed they were cheated out of their property, and years later, a shocking act of violence involving Bo and Ruth's parents cements the acrimony between the clans.

When Sam and Ruth started dating, Hannah considered it the height of betrayal. But now, Sam is gone and Bo and Ruth begin forming an unlikely bond over his disappearance. When Ruth suffers a devastating loss of her own, Bo and Hannah must decide if they will let Ruth into their family or if they will remain at odds with the Youngers forever.

Reading The Signal Flame is like being inside the eye of a hurricane. The story unfolds with relative calm, but death and devastation brim around the edges. It's only after reading the final page that one is aware of the emotional impact left in its wake. It's the kind of novel that gets its tenterhooks inside you and refuses to let go.

Krivak evokes, with beautiful and sparse prose, the mid-century lives of blue-collar men and women as they grapple with love, grief, and forgiveness. I have never been to the Endless Mountains, but with Krivak's descriptions, I could almost feel as if I were there. Krivak describes Bo and his father going on "walks on which they had to stop and rest often, on a lush patch of crow's-foot, or the bald dome of Summit Rocks, where they could see the most of the two-thousand-acre stretch of the Vinich land."

Save for one harrowing, breathtaking passage, not much of note "happens" in the book. Stylistically, the most interesting choice Krivak makes is eschewing the use of quotation marks. While this may be jarring, it's a mark of the author's talent that it's never unclear who is speaking. Rather than distract, the result makes the narrative feel like an old, important oral history. Instead of plot-focused twists or turns, we get a glimpse into the lives of three wounded, flawed people over the course of several years. The Signal Flame may burn slowly, but it burns hot.

Although a heavy novel—death and tragedy plague the Konars like storm clouds—The Signal Flame is ultimately a testament to hope. The book's epigraph quotes Aeschylus, the Greek father of tragedy, "So now I am still awatch for the signal-flame, the gleaming fire that is to harbinger news from Troy." But the "signal flame" of the novel's title reminds us that when it comes to missing loved ones, hope takes many forms. There is the hope that the past, and therefore its memory, will not fade away forever. But there is also the hope that the future, without them, may not be so unbearable after all.

Reviewed by Matt Grant

Kirkus Reviews
A simple story, on its face, but full of resounding depths: a dark commemoration of a dark time but offering the slim hope that things will get better.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. This family saga is quiet at its core, but it's Krivák's gorgeous prose and deep grasp of the relationship between longing and loss that make the book such a stunner.

Booklist
Starred Review. Krivák's story and characters are mythic. His prose is spare, but his portrait of a little-known mountain region "rife with stones and rattlesnakes" is compelling, beautiful, and ennobling.

Library Journal
Starred Review. With studied language and a strong sense of place, Krivák elucidates how family structures and narratives fractured, maintained, and evolved between World War I and the Vietnam War.

Author Blurb Richard Russo, author of Empire Falls
Readers will hear some echoes of Faulkner in The Signal Flame, and even more of Kent Haruf in the simplicity, honesty, and wisdom of its prose. But what they'll hear most is the deep, thoughtful, resonant voice of Andrew Krivák, a writer seemingly destined for great things.

Author Blurb Brad Kessler, author of Birds in Fall
There are many pleasures to be found in The Signal Flame: The intimacy and love with which Krivak writes about his postage stamp of rural Pennsylvania. His keen sense of time and place, the woods and forests and hills of the Endless Mountains. Page by page the book itself feels like an outgrowth of the soil in in which it is steeped.

Author Blurb Jesmyn Ward, author of Salvage the Bones and Men We Reaped
A well-crafted novel, elegantly told, The Signal Flame is a testament to Krivák's singular talent.

Author Blurb Marlon James, author of A Brief History of Seven Killings
This is a novel of tremendous sorrow and tremendous beauty. Of love shaped by war, and of how the past haunts the present, and shapes the future. An incandescent work.

Author Blurb Maaza Mengiste, author of Beneath the Lion's Gaze
It isn't often that a story finds me making comparisons to literary greats from the first page. This is one of those books. In the end, what Krivák does is something all his own, and it is a triumph.

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The MIA in Vietnam

In The Signal Flame, the Konar family grapples with the fact that Sam, the youngest son, is missing in action in Vietnam.

War, by its very nature, means that not all who leave to fight will return home. In addition to those who die in service to their country, conflicts yield prisoners of war (POWs) and soldiers missing in action (MIA) who remain unaccounted for after the hostilities end. In most cases, the fate of these missing men and women remains a mystery, leaving grieving families without the closure of knowing what happened to their loved ones.

The National League of Families' POW/MIA flag After the Vietnam War, 2,646 American servicemen were reported missing. Since that time, 1,028 have been identified and repatriated. It is the task of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) to conduct ongoing investigations into the whereabouts of the other 1,618.

However, searching for the last known whereabouts and remains of over 1,600 people across four countries (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and China*) who went missing decades ago is no easy task. Sometimes, servicemen have been found alive. But more often than not, these painstaking investigations involve searching for human remains in places that are at best, guesses of where someone might have been killed in action.

Complicating matters further, if the cause of death was a high-speed crash or fire, remains can be laborious to identify. Technology makes searching easier, and the Paris peace accords of 1973, which officially ended direct U.S. involvement in Vietnam, stipulated that both nations must cooperate in locating remains of their missing service members. Thankfully, the relationship between the two powers has eased over the years.

In 2010, the U.S. funded a $1 million initiative to train Vietnamese officials to find their own missing, and in return, Vietnam's Ministry of National Defence (MND) has made more of its archives on killed or missing troops available to U.S. investigators.

According to their website, members of the DPAA plan to conduct four Joint Field Activities in the 2017 fiscal year. This involves traveling to Hanoi, where the MND is located, on an ongoing basis to sort through archival documents and excavate battle sites. Additionally, both U.S. and Vietnamese officials will conduct interviews to document an oral history of the war, hoping that eyewitness testimony will open new leads. To date, this ongoing program has garnered more than 300 such oral histories.

Of course, Americans were not the only ones who fought in the Vietnam War. Six Australians were also reported missing, and have since been confirmed killed in action. And thanks to cooperative efforts between the U.S. and Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of missing Vietnam soldiers are actively being searched for in the same manner as the missing Americans.

*The MIA in China were lost at sea in Chinese territorial waters.

Picture of The National League of Families' POW/MIA flag from National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia

By Matt Grant

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