Bohemian Girl by Terese Svoboda
Bison Books, 2011
At the 1893 World’s Fair, Frederick Jackson Turner delivered his now-famous thesis about the closing of the frontier, proposing that,
American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character.
Terese Svoboda’s novel Bohemian Girl begins years before that speech, in 1861—the year of Turner’s birth, in fact—but is a rich embodiment of the “perennial rebirth” he mentions, and of the rubbing raw between civility and primitivism the frontier embodied.
Early on, Bohemian Girl suggests early American captivity narratives, the memoirs of women taken to live among Native Americans. Teenage narrator Harriet starts her story by telling us, “Pa lost me on a bet he could not break, nor would, having other daughters to do for, and other debt besides.” The outcome of her immigrant father’s lost bet is Harriet being taken as a slave by his Indian rival, and bound to (and literally hobbled by) her captor’s Quixotic project of building an earth-mound to protect his tribe from the encroaching European threat. She’s enslaved to her father’s own demands, too, because he allowed her to be taken in hopes she might later lead him to a treasure horde he suspects the Indian has. Harriet, like all of the women in the novel and like the frontier itself, often sees her own will overridden by such futile obsessions held by the men around her, and Bohemian Girl is, among other things, the story of her loosening those bonds as best she can to make an independent life for herself.
She begins by escaping her captor and heading east in search of her father, her sisters, and “civilization.” While in one sense her trip reverses the familiar westward march into the wild, it isn’t that simple because in this landscape one direction seems as wild as the other. Of her Pa she tells us,
His gambling habit started in Russia, a place that shelters more wolves than people. Pa is not one to save, and wolves, they never put by either which is what my brother Jiri must have meant, in resemblance.
As in all captivity narratives, there are fears of the captive becoming the captor—i.e., going wild—as suggested when Harriet says, “you wouldn’t know me from the Indians.” In this case, however, the Indians tell stories of the savage world to the east:
Slaves do their best work alive, says the Indian.
William the Hat takes his turn at the pipe. They do not think that in London, he says. The bridge there is said to have many bones in it, the workmen’s, even the children of the workmen. It is very strong. They walled them in alive.
So the Indian builds his mound of bones, and the Europeans build theirs, and caught in between Harriet is a living frontier: belonging to neither side as both seek to define her, and insistent on defining herself. Far from the frontier “closing” as Turner surmised, there remains the hardscrabble, dangerous edge of making her way as a woman alone.
For a time Harriet travels with Sharon, another young woman she meets on the road, and though Sharon is capable enough to take care of herself, she adapts when opportunity knocks. Upon meeting a balloonist after his conveyance falls from the sky, “Sharon is sidling up to the prince as if she knows which way the wind will blow.” Later, she explains herself to Harriet: “You see, says Sharon, if I say I am ready for marriage they will want to safeguard me.” For her part, Harriet finds her way to a town and begins reinventing herself as a seamstress and shopkeeper, forging a new, domestic—but independent—life for herself.
So it isn’t that progress hasn’t reached the frontier, but it comes in the form of futuristic transportation like hot air balloons and bicycles that never seem to go far without failure. And the march of progress is anything but persistent in a world where everything is on the verge of falling apart or being refashioned like so much wire and fabric into whatever is needed from moment to moment. Even gender is flexible, as when Harriet describes the early days of the town:
At the beginning they were short of women, the hard life that it was, and men danced with scarves tied to their arms to show they took the woman’s part. I always had to dance then and played cool to the men with scarves and those without—I knew slavery when I saw it.
“Slavery,” because everything is flexible except men and their steadfast obsessions, whether it’s building earth mounds and forts, flying hot air balloons, setting out over and over on fruitless hunts, or even the absurd, Phineas Fogg-ish maintenance of customs like carefully shaving and polishing boots while lost in the wild. And Harriet, steadfast and stubborn and admirable for it, pursues her own desires as doggedly as those men pursue theirs, with what Turner called “dominant individualism.”
Whether or not Frederick Jackson Turner was right that the frontier made freedom possible by “breaking the bonds of custom, offering new experiences, and calling out new institutions and activities,” certainly the self-invention and renewal it offered is at the heart of Bohemian Girl, and of the American mythologies among which Harriet and her story very much deserve to take their place. Because history and myth are frontiers of their own, as shifting as storms, and as Harriet says at one point,
The thunderstorm won’t stay put. Lightning runs sideways, cloud-to-cloud, thunder crackles with echo, a double rainbow shimmers before the rain even starts, but no tornado hangs from a yellow cloud—yet.