Black Earth, Big History

This month’s Inkberry Books Review is special for a couple of reasons. First, it’s very timely considering current events; Black Earth by Jens Mühling is a nonfiction account of the author’s journey through Ukraine. Second, the book was translated from German by Inkberry’s very own Gene Hayworth.

(sorry y’all, I’ve got a new day job and didn’t have time to film a vlog!)

Nonfiction is a tricky genre–some books feel more like academic materials and others are entertaining. I find that typically the most entertaining tend to be memoirs or ones in which the imagery is so vivid, that it reads like a PBS documentary.

Black Earth is neither academic, nor documentary-like; it has some elements of memoir, but isn’t quite as casual. It struck me as though I was catching up with a friend about their recent travels, mixed with a bit of history along the way.

At just under 300 pages, Black Earth is a long read and it can be somewhat dense at times. It isn’t dense in the sense that it might be perceived as boring, rather that there’s just a lot of detail. Between descriptions of his own experiences in the various parts of the country, Mühling inserts historical asides. For example, in chapter nine, “At Rabbi Nachman’s Grave,” part of the chapter talks about who Rabbi Nachman was, his impact on the religious history of Ukraine and at one point, tangentially addresses the uprising spearheaded by Maksym Zliznyak and Ivan Honta. Interspersed with these somewhat brief historical lessons, Mühling describes observing (and becoming involved in) the Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage and a rather curious encounter with a pro-Russian lady who gave him a tour of the Zofia Gardens Park.

Somewhat surprisingly, I really liked this organization, it felt as though I was on a tour of the country rather than just reading about someone else’s trip. Mühling uses a lot of dialogue from his notes of interviews, and so these, in combination with his anecdotes from each city, made the story seem so much more real and engaging.

Another reason why I liked this organization–and his detail in recounting his interactions with locals was superb–was that the historical notes gave context to some of the conflicts mentioned by his current-day interviews. Even though the original German text was published in 2016 and first English edition in 2019, just given everything we’ve heard in the recent news cycle, it still seems very relevant.

“As long as peace prevailed, we did not see how divided our society was. It wasn’t until the war that we could really see the hidden dividing lines between people,” Bronislav Tutelman explained to Mühling (139).

That quote was particularly impactful to me as I really lacked understanding of some of the deeper, historical roots of this 2022 war. I didn’t realize the extent to which the land that is now called “Ukraine” had been claimed and reclaimed, named and renamed, shifting between other countries’ authority before finally claiming its own–just like the Kievan Patriarch only established its national church in the 90s.

Nor did I understand the importance of national poet Taras Shevchenko, another man with whom Mühling explained, “Shevchenko is the only thing that unites Ukrainians… We have many churches, but only one Shevchenko” (153). I also liked this quote and how it fit with the previous one—it gives a sense of hope, one that seems to be needed especially now.

I thoroughly enjoyed Black Earth for its entertaining, educational approach. Mühling is a descriptive, detail oriented writer; it’s clear that there is a lot of research behind the book and the personal touches–like his anecdotes–give the book a sense of humanity. It fleshes out Ukraine’s history and its people in a wonderful way. I definitely recommend the book to anyone interested in history or traveling. In two words, it’s engaging and informative.

That’s all I’ve got for now! Next week I’ll be reviewing Madeleine Roux‘s The Book of Living Secrets

Happy Reading!


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