Busia, as Reviewers See the Book


“Books in Brief,” Polish American Journal, August 2017, p. 6, reviewed by Mary Lanham:

In the early 1950s, a six-year-old boy lived on a farm in rural Michigan with his Polish immigrant grandmother. There was no telephone or television to occupy then. Instead they passed the time gardening, cooking, and keeping the house running. Leonard Kniffel paints a compelling picture of this simpler time in his life with his short memoir, Busia: Seasons on the Farm with My Polish Grandmother.

Sent to live with his grandmother while his mother worked in Hamtramck, Kniffel narrates what life was like in the year before modern conveniences came to the farm. Leonard played outside, around the barn, in the attic, and assisted with the labors necessary to run a household. Kniffel describes the ritual of doing the laundry as such.

“On Wash day, Busia rolled the electric washing machine to the center of the kitchen. It stood like a big white kettle on four legs. She filled it with water she heated on the stove. Connected to the top of the machine were the wringers. Next to the machine on a bench was a wash tub, the same tub I took my baths in. It was filled with ice cold water and a few drops of bluing so that it looked like a clean, fresh little lake.”

While getting ready for the Christmas season Kniffel’s grandmother tells him about grwoing up in Poland and the difficult journey she made on a boat from the old country to the United States. After settleing down in Michigan, his “Busia” learned English but did not assimilate into American life completely, preferring to make Polish food such as pierogi from scratch and listening to Polish language radio.

Kniffel’s style in Busia is perfect for younger and older readers alike and is available for purchase from the Polish Art Center in Hamtramck, Michigan and the gift shop of the Polish Museum of America.

Booklist Online Exclusive: May 18, 2017, reviewed by Bill Ott.

“In this charming yet meaty memoir, Kniffel takes readers to a rural Michigan farm in the 1950s, where he spent his youngest days. As a little boy, he was known by the Polish derivation of his name, Lenús. With his mother away working, it was up to his Busia, his grandmother, to care for him, even as the child cares for her. Writing with evocative precision, Kniffel describes life on the farm; his chores, which, despite his age, Lenús performs with aplomb; the wonders on view, lush lilacs, and hidden eggs; the treats, as on Christmas—a miniature gas station under the tree!—and the uncertainty that comes with tornadoes and landlords whose decisions affect their lives. As the book moves through the seasons, Kniffel’s narrative captures the rhythms of country life as well as the ups and downs of human existence. Everything is important here, from the visit of a telephone man to the visit of a mother. This is a book to be savored.”

GoodReads, October 12, 2017, reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott:

Memories with wishes woven in, BUSIA is writer Leonard Kniffel’s account of one year of his childhood in the 1950s on a Michigan farm. After his mother left his father and stayed in a Polish enclave in Detroit to make ends meet, the little boy was sent to live with his Busia (Polish for Grandmother, pronounced Boosha) who rented a Soil Bank property meant to be unproductive as part of a national program of crop regulation. As his early years passed, Lennie bonded with the old woman, whose simple English, strong beliefs, and homely routines formed their means of communication.

Days would begin with a trip to the outhouse, and end with prayers. Lennie could hear Busia in the adjoining room repeating, “Thanks God, very fine, very nice, very good, very sweet.” Busia’s indomitable spirit comes through every incident in this emotionally charged memoir. Whether it is baking coffee cake or paying the landlord or hosting visits from her children and grandchildren, Busia rarely has a negative word to say. Only on the day when Lennie, in his zeal to “fix the yard” nearly destroys the rented farm by starting a fast-moving brush fire, does she cry from the exhaustion of dealing with the crisis and come close to scolding him: “The yard you fix it good.”

Kniffel’s memories, he says, link real events with some fictionalized descriptions. He writes of Sunday Mass–the many rushed preparations for going to church with Busia, the confusion when some people kneel or stand at the wrong time, and the dreaded ritual of kissing the feet of a statue of Jesus. Each evening he helps his grandmother make hooked rugs from strips of old cloth. When his mother and her siblings come to visit, he and the other grandchildren swing on a rope from the hayloft in the barn, or rush into the fallow fields to seek out a few ears of corn for popcorn. Christmas brings cards from as far away as Poland, and marvelous presents like an electric train. Shopping for Busia’s present involves a rare trip to the ten-cent store where he has enough coins to purchase a night gown and a bottle of “pear-foon!” When he turns seven, he finally convinces Busia that he is big enough to walk to the store alone, a distance of a quarter mile. He roams the local creek, encountering leeches, and picks berries for Busia’s jam, unfortunately gobbling some cherries too, not knowing they are infested with green worms.

As this series of vignettes evolves, we realize that the landlord intends to improve the farm with the addition of a telephone, a furnace and a real bathroom. Will this mean Busia will have to leave? People come to look at the property. Finally she learns, through a rare telephone call, that the rent will go up by five dollars, but they can stay and enjoy the new luxuries.

Kniffel, a writer, editor and librarian, lived on the farm with Busia for seven more years, watching progress change the landscape, resulting in more leisure time and fewer trees. In this brief portrait of the past, he offers a sense of the connection between old world ways and new world alterations, seen through the eyes of a curious child and an old immigrant woman, both marooned between the two.

Cover Amazon

Busia: Seasons on the Farm with My Polish Grandmother.

Kniffel, Leonard (author).

Feb. 2017. 57p. PolishSon, hardcover, $15 (9780692032947).

Order from the Polish Museum of America or the Polish Art Center.


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