I don’t know if I would have discovered Christina Shea’s wonderful novel Smuggled if the publisher hadn’t given me the opportunity to read it. I’m so glad I can share this story with you because it’s a just released novel that deserves all the attention it can get!
Eva Farkas was a normal rambunctious and fearless five year old, living in Budapest, Hungary during World War II. She begged for her mother, Eszter, to read one particular book to her every night, even though she knew the story by heart, but she got very upset with her mother for saying she should want to be like the mole in the book and stay hidden. Eva couldn’t understand why her mother insisted on that being an admirable quality when she, like most five-year-old girls, wanted to be the princess instead. In fact, Eva insisted she actually was a princess. She, like most adored only children, could wrap her loving mother around her little finger. Eva knew she was loved unconditionally. Her other favorite thing to do was to play hide and seek with the landlady’s son Peter but she envied Peter because he went to school every day and she wasn’t allowed to because she was Jewish. It didn’t seem fair.
Eva’s father, a Catholic man named Gyorgi, visited them when he could and brought them food and other rationed items they couldn’t get. After Eva was in bed at night, her mother worked secretly on a coat for Eva containing money Gyorgi had provided sewn into the lining so artfully that no one could tell it was there unless the coat was disassembled. One night in 1943, Eva’s mother and Gyorgi drugged Eva with cough syrup and sewed her into a flour sack, telling her she must hide like the mole and not let anyone know she was there. Poor little Eva thinks she’s being sent away because she broke her hand.
“From the bottom of the sack she looked up at her mother’s face, a grave moon. Mama! But she couldn’t speak or cry out. She must hide herself. She carefully pulled her broken hand out of its sleeve, nestling it inside the coat…The moon came close. Her [mother’s] eyes shone. ‘I love you, my Eva,’ Eszter whispered. Then Gyorgi tied the sack tight.”
In that sack of flour, Eva is smuggled by train across the border into Crisu, Romania, to the farm of Gyorgi’s sister Kati, a potter, and her Romanian border-guard husband, Ilie Balaj – to her new home. When the flour coated Eva has been cleaned up, she is told in no uncertain terms, “Eva is dead,” and that she is now Anca Balaj. To Eva, the name Anca sounds like glass breaking and she doesn’t like it at all. She insists that she is Eva, not Anca. Eva/Anca doesn’t speak or understand Romanian, only Hungarian, but Aunt Kati tells her that she must never speak Hungarian again.
Eva/Anca doesn’t understand why her mother doesn’t come for her or why she can’t go outside to play or why she can’t be Eva anymore. As an adult, suspecting the kind of danger the Balajs put themselves in to save Eva, I can understand the need for absolute secrecy; however, putting myself in Eva’s shoes, she must have felt like her world had turned upside down – and it had.
“Their plan was to provide [Eva]her with a new identity. It would be risky, but not impossible. The population wasn’t without empathy for the casualties of war, especially children. As long as they weren’t Gypsies. And the Jews were gone, purged from the villages on the Hungarian side after the border shifted, in a roundup of ‘aliens.’”
Thankfully, children are remarkably resilient and resourceful. One day the Romanian language just clicks for her and Anca eventually thrives despite the complete upheaval of her life. Kati and Ilie are as kind to her as they know how to be, and they become her family. Once she speaks Romanian well enough, they take her out into public and tell everyone she’s their niece from Ilie’s side of the family. In time, Anca finds much needed allies in a young gypsy boy before the gypsies are completely driven out of Romania, from Ilie’s mother, and later from the local pharmacy clerk. Anca’s early upheaval turns her into a survivor and she needs those skills to get through the Soviet takeover of Romania and to find her way back to Budapest and to being Eva.
To tell you more would spoil the journey. Smuggled is a story of unimaginable loss and hardship but also of redemption and recapturing of self on a number of different levels. The period covered spans from 1943 when Eva is five years old to the early 1990’s after the Berlin wall falls, when she is in her 50’s. It will make you really think about what people will do to survive. Anca and the people she knows have to do some things to survive which you may find troubling. I can’t tell you how many times I sent Eva/Anca mental hugs. I came to really care about this character. Her strength and courage were amazing to me.
The writing in Smuggled may appear deceptively simple and straightforward but the subtext is amazingly rich and multi-layered. Anca is searching for herself, for Eva, for love and acceptance, and a “normal” life. Aren’t we all? This is one of those novels that may cause you to re-examine what’s important. It definitely will stay with you and make you very grateful. I highly recommend Smuggled!
If you’ve read Smuggled, or anything by Christina Shea, we’d love to get your comments. We’d also love to hear your comments about this review.
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