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Roza - The Runaway: A Review

Janice Demobosky’s new novel, Roza—The Runaway, is an interesting, moving, and often surprising piece of historical fiction.  The author explores her mother’s life from her childhood to her early thirties.  Roza, whose character is based on Dembosky’s mother, Ania Rozella Sokul, is constrained not only geographically but also by the beliefs of those around her and by institutional and religious rules. Roza’s mother, Suzanna, makes a number of difficult and controversial decisions. Dembosky helps us understand how such decisions may be understood—if not condoned—as she describes the larger landscape of poverty, ethnic backgrounds, and options for women in the 1920s through the 1950s.  The story takes place largely in Indiana County, and a sense of confinement underlies much of the novel.

The book moves through three main segments:  Roza’s life up to age 15, when a violent interaction with her mother forces her to run away; her life as an independent and responsible teenager working in Indiana and falling in love; and her married life as a young wife and mother into her mid-thirties. 

Roza’s young life is marked by physical and emotional trauma.  She loses her father to a coal mine explosion in 1924, in Ernest, PA.  Her family moves to a farm in Creekside, but it is a difficult life. When Roza is molested by an uncle, he is beaten by his family upon the revelation of his act, yet he does not go to jail—his help is still needed. 

Eventually, Suzanna marries again.  Her third husband, Ludwik, attempts to molest both Roza’s older sister Berta and Roza. When Roza tells her mother about Ludwik’s behavior, her mother turns on her, beating her and rejecting her claim.  Heartbroken, she runs away at age 15.

This segment sets the foundation upon which the rest of the novel builds.  Women need men for survival because other options for work or employment are scarce. This is not only because of a ravaged economy and gender roles and stereotypes, but also because these are poor immigrant families.  They do not have the resources to “up and move” and pursue dreams elsewhere. It is a cycle of poverty, both economic and intellectual.

Roza finds a new life working at the Indiana State Teacher’s College (ISTC) in Indiana.  There, she lives and works with a cadre of young women who serve food to the college students, clean their rooms, wash dishes, and help with baking and kitchen work.  They share rooms in the basement of John Sutton Hall and earn room and board and $5.00 a month.  For the first time, Roza feels fully supported.  She realizes from her interactions with her co-workers and occasionally a college student that the world is bigger than she thought.  Her horizons expand. 

She meets 18-year-old Gino Galabresi at Meadowbrook, a dance hall, and they become a couple almost immediately.  Gino is a miner whose family lives in Chambersville.  Gino can be described as a lapsed Catholic, angry at the number of children his mother has bourn and lost due to religious rules.  He wants a very physical relationship with Roza.  Roza does not want to have sex out of marriage—her Catholic beliefs are strong. Some of their discussions are frank and funny, but they all show how 16-year-old Roza is trying to manage the powerful forces that shape her life. 

She begins to imagine a life for herself as a teacher, but everywhere she turns, there are obstacles:  rules, regulations, and beliefs that hold her back.  Roza realizes that she values her relationship with Gino over her imagined options for her life, and when she turns 18, she and Gino marry in a civil ceremony in Maryland.

This section helps readers see how intelligent, ambitious, and responsible Roza is.  We see that she loves Gino, but that her wishes come second—she is not a gloriously happy bride.  Readers must watch sadly as doors close to Roza, one after another. 

The final segment surprises readers with twists and turns.  Roza swiftly becomes a young mother. Within a couple of years, she has two daughters.  Gino loves his children but is saddened that he does not have a son.  The last chapters explore how Roza and Gino and some of his family members juggle family and economic demands, relocating several times. 

When Roza learns that her mother has dementia and her twin younger brothers have died, she lapses into a deep depression.  That leads to hospitalization, with Gino coming to visit her once a week over the three months she spends in Pittsburgh. She returns home determined to strengthen her marriage and family. She discovers in 1952 that, at age 33, she is pregnant again. 

The final few chapters of the book demand new kinds of thinking and emotional responsibility from Roza.  She discovers new strengths in herself and opens her heart up in ways that surprise not only her and Gino but also readers.

Dembosky has deftly woven historical fact and locations into fiction in this novel.  The preface and notes that “bookend” the story help clarify where she has inserted fictional elements and imagined reactions and conversations.  Roza’s wit and ability to perceive the unfairness of many of the events in her life seem truly hers. Overall, this is well-paced, with realistic and moving major characters.  The writer doesn’t shy away from frank discussions of desire, frustrations, and fulfillment of various kinds. In the end, what counts as success is not exactly like the “riches” that follow “rags.”  There is no fairytale conclusion to this novel, but it is still emotionally satisfying and richly rewarding for readers.

Join us on April 18, 2024 to hear more about this book at our Author Talk with Janice Dembosky.


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