Author Keith Maillard was born right here in Wheeling in 1942, where he lived until eventually moving to Canada in opposition to the Vietnam War. He has utilized his vast knowledge of this town and its history to pen several books.
“The Clarinet Polka” is a tale of the ravages of war on body and spirit and how those wounds continue to affect families from one generation to the next. The book also paints a true-to-life and multi-faceted picture of working-class Polish-Americans in our local area.
Polish immigrants poured into West Virginia in the early 1900s, drawn by the job opportunities being created by our state’s rapidly growing industrial sector. Many Polish families settled in South Wheeling where the men of that neighborhood provided essential labor for the booming steel industry. Women generally played the traditional role of housewife, raising children and tending to the domestic needs of the family. The Polish community was deeply rooted in its Catholic faith, and the church was an important fixture as a religious and social center of the neighborhood.
“The Clarinet Polka” tells the story of Jimmy Koprowski, a young man born into one of these immigrant families. Though the name of Jimmy’s fictional hometown in the book is Raysburg, it is easy to recognize the landmarks mentioned as those of the Friendly City. In fact, the author’s website states that Maillard, while studying at West Virginia University, made a conscious choice to create ”fictional geography” as the setting for much of his work.
“That’s when I first invented my half-mythic, half-real town of Raysburg — a place that looked suspiciously like Wheeling,” Maillard reveals on keithmaillard.com.
Maillard’s book opens in 1969, taking the reader back to the Vietnam War era. Jimmy has landed back at his parents’ home in South Raysburg after a stint in the service. The small blue-collar town has little to offer Jimmy except attending Mass and day-drinking at local bars. Oh, and the occasional polka soiree.
Polka music was still a hot part of local culture in the late 1960s and early ’70s. As many of you may know, “The Clarinet Polka” was also the name of a popular tune from the past. Remember “Polka Party,” the weekly radio show that aired on a local AM radio station? I can remember listening to it in my parents’ stationwagon on our way home from church each Sunday, Dad and Mom singing along to “Pennsylvania Polka” and “Who Stole the Kishka?”
But back to the book. Inspired by the popular music of the era, Jimmy’s younger sister Linda decides to start an all-girl polka band, and Jimmy becomes intrigued by Janice Dluwiecki, the group’s star clarinet player. Janice is just a teenager, however. Though too young and wholesome for Jimmy, he still finds her oddly fascinating. Unbeknownst to Jimmy, Janice and the entire Dluwiecki family are haunted by the tragedies of prior generations. Like many immigrant families, the Raysburg Dluwieckis are fiercely proud and private, and the secrets that crossed the ocean with them following World War II are now silently threatening to divide their family.
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Jimmy continues to scrutinize Janice from afar, while simultaneously mourning the loss of his longtime best friend in Vietnam. His self-worth plummets, and he ramps up his drinking in an effort to numb his pain. He takes a job at a TV repair shop and reports to work sporadically when he’s not too hung over. Jimmy is drawn into a toxic affair with an unstable, married socialite who shares his love of the bottle. Despite how well they mesh in the bedroom — or more often the back seat of her car — their intense relationship is fraught with insanity.
The book provides gritty and powerful insight into the world of an alcoholic. Jimmy is at times not easy to like, but I eventually found myself empathizing with his plight and cheering for him to make the right choices. Like most of us, he is a nuanced character layered with both good and evil. His first-person narrative possesses a raw and interesting voice. It gives the reader a detailed and specific sense of place, weaving the past with the present to tell a vivid tale of a veteran trying to readjust to civilian life.
Does Jimmy overcome his alcoholism? Does Janice unearth her family’s secrets? What becomes of Jimmy’s lust-filled affair? You will have to read the book to find out — it’s available on Amazon or at your local library.
“The Clarinet Polka” will be of particular interest to those of Polish ancestry who will find themselves relating personally to historical, cultural and musical references throughout the book. I’m of neither Polish nor Catholic heritage, but I enjoyed this book just the same. If you are, you will likely find it all the more engaging. Be prepared — you may want to whip up a batch of pierogi when you finish it!
• A lifelong Wheeling resident, Ellen Brafford McCroskey is a proud graduate of Wheeling Park High School and the former Wheeling Jesuit College. By day, she works for an international law firm; by night, (and often on her lunch breaks and weekends) she enjoys moonlighting as a part-time writer. Please note that the views expressed in her writing are solely her own and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, including her full-time employer. Through her writing, Ellen aims to enlighten others on causes close to her heart, particularly addiction, recovery and equal rights. She and her husband Doug reside in Warwood with their clowder of rescued cats, each of whom is a direct consequence of his job as the Ohio County Dog Warden. Their family includes four adult children, their spouses and several grandkids.