Read the chatscript from Jen Michalski’s visit to #litchat here.
The quest for immortality is a theme as old as literature itself. Jen Michalski takes on this theme in her novel, The Tide King, and won the respectable Big Moose literary prize from Dzanc Books with it.
The Tide King is opens with an odd trio of American tourists headed in a taxi to an obscure Polish village. This prologue reveals little about the man, woman and girl, yet astute readers will discern important details that fit like clues as this crossword puzzle of story progresses.
Just before he goes off to fight in WWII, Stanley Polenski’s mother gives him a cluster of dried herbs and tells him to eat it if he is critically wounded. When his friend Calvin Johnson is mortally wounded, Polenski forces the herb down his throat, but leaves him as dead when there is no obvious result. This herb, burnette saxifrage, takes time to work. Not only does it restore breath and brain function, it regrows limbs and regenerates nerves and flesh. Johnson wakes up fully restored weeks later and crawls out of a battlefield grave somewhere in Europe.
Like many veterans, Polenski returns from the war with debilitating emotional wounds. He never learns that Johnson is alive and confused by what happened on that battleground. Both of them begin a search for each other that stretches through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.
Over in the highlands of Poland, Ela Zdunc is trapped in the body of a nine-year-old girl. Her mother made her eat the herb just before she was shot in a political uprising back in 1806. She has lived four regenerated lives and wants nothing more than to grow into adulthood, love and be loved, and die naturally.
Moving up and down and across time, The Tide King follows Ela and Johnson in their respective lives as it peels away the glamour of immortality and reveals the haunting pain and longing for a final death.
A third character consumes the herb in a tasty twist toward the end, which complicates and bookends the cycle in unexpected ways.
In addition to the novel The Tide King, Michalski is author of two collections of fiction, From Here and Close Encounters, and a collection of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now. In 2013 she was named one of “50 Women to Watch” by The Baltimore Sun and won a “Best of Baltimore” for Best Writer from Baltimore Magazine. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww and host of The 510 Readings and the biannual Lit Show. She lives in Baltimore, Md.
Photo of Jen Michalski by Caryn Coyle, Baltimore Sun.
Follow Jen Michalski on Twitter: @MichalskiJen.