Monday, March 17, 2008
And Other Life Lessons Learned in Siberia
by Andrew Bienkowski and Mary Akers
published by Allen & Unwin, ISBN 9781741754223
Part inspirational self-help book and part memoir, Radical Gratitude is an involving, quick read. Mr. Bienkowski, a therapist for more than 40 years, recounts the time his family spent exiled in Siberia during WWII, and how the life lessons he learned as a small child still influence him to this day. The goal of this book is to pass those lessons along to the readers. Lessons of gratitude, hope, perseverance, faith and love.
The inspirational part of Radical Gratitude is written in first person, and allows Mr. Bienkowski to break down each "lesson" (as he calls the chapters), and draw from his past to show his inspiration for different treatment philosophies. This is all good stuff, and he gives practical, useful advice in not only helping others, but also in helping ourselves. Helping ourselves live a better, stress-less life, keep a positive outlook, and have hope for a better future, as well as how to appreciate the present, and be grateful for things most people take for granted on a daily basis. Things like simple kindnesses, food, and shelter. And you know, as the reader, that he speaks from experience, that when he was a child in Siberia he didn't know where the next meal would come from.
His concept of "radical gratitude" is the "idea that we can learn to feel grateful, even for the terrible things that happen to us in our lives." In fact, they will make you a stronger person. His horrifying experiences as a child have given him a better understanding of life, for which he is grateful.
I found the memoir part of the book, which alternated between third and first person narration, truly fascinating. Bienkowski's family, which consisted of his grandmother and grandfather, mother, younger brother, and himself were forced from their home and relocated to Siberia by Stalin after communist Russia invaded Poland (his father was in the Polish army fighting on another front). Stripped of their belongings and money, they were forced to live in a hut with virtually nothing. To make it through the first long, hard winter, Bienkowski's grandfather starved himself to death so the rest of the family could survive on the meager supply of food that was left. I detect co-author Mary Aker's skillful hand here, in bringing to life the story of this close-knit, loving family surviving against all odds in an unforgiving environment (both physical and political). I found myself right there with the family, feeling what they felt, seeing what they saw, and hearing what they heard:
The long winters had taught Andrew that the presence of wolves was a cause for fear. And yet something had been shifting in his mind when he thought of wolves. Summer, the villagers taught him, was not a time to fear wolves. In the summertime, wolves are well fed and happy. They are raising families far from the village and humans do not interest wolves.
So instead, Andy listened to the wolves as if they were singing a song. Each wolf had his part and each took up before the other left off, so that a continuous chorus of wolf voices surrounded him out there on the plain. As far as he knew, everyone else in camp was asleep, and the wolves sang for him alone.
The grandmother and mother were courageous and tenacious women, choosing not only to live and protect the two young children, but to not compromise their principles along the way. The grandfather, of course, made the ultimate sacrifice for his family. The thing I loved most about this part of Radical Gratitude was that I didn't know the outcome. Obviously Andrew survived to tell the tale, but who else lived and whether or not the family made it out of Siberia to reunite with Andrew's father was a mystery. This was very cinematic to me, and the clear, straightforward storytelling kept me turning the pages.
The Bienkowski family's story is truly inspiring. For this I am grateful that Mr. Bienkowski and Mary Akers decided to share it with the world.