This novel is based on stories Aloysius A. Lutz heard growing up in Dunkirk, New York, in the early 20th Century - stories he later told to his son, Richard.
The story's factual content reads like a documentary of ocean travel at the end of the 19th Century. The reader will become familiar with the details of traveling by sail in 1869 - the conditions of travel as well as the physical and emotional problems the passengers. The story is told mostly through the eyes of a newlywed couple, Paul Adamik and Jadwiga Wdowiak Adamik. At its beginning, she finds him, an obedient soldier in the Prussian army, intending to re-enlist, carry on his family's farming tradition, or accept an offer to become the caretaker of his German lieutenant's lands in occupied Poland. But she is a strong-willed fisherman's daughter from the Baltic coast, and she has different plans for him.
Father and son augmented the stories, remembered by the father, with scrupulous research. They portray the tensions among Poles caused by the political situation of those times when Poland was partitioned among three neighboring powers, Russia, Prussia, and Austria. The difficulty of life in occupied Poland was the main reason why so many people left their homeland in that time, responding to the stories of a free America. This is shown in the book very well. If you enjoy adventure and romance - you will find it in the book also.
People who decided to travel oversees had to be very brave and desperate, like the statement from the book, "the fearful never left and the weak never survived." Anybody who decided to go oversees had to sell everything before travel, knowing he might never return. He needed all that money to start life in a different part of the world.
Early in the 19th Century, just getting to a port of embarkation might mean days or weeks of travel on foot, by rivercraft, or in horse-drawn vehicles. But by the middle of 19th Century, the spread of railroads made it easy. The first part of travel of Jadwiga and Paul is done by train to Bremenhaven, Germany. Then they embark with other Polish immigrants on the ship Frederika in the cheapest steerage class amid livestock.
Under normal circumstances, the travel would have taken about a month, and Jadwiga's baby - she is now pregnant - would be born in America, as she has planned. But the Frederika, pressed into service for the emigration trade, is not competently managed and the ship is damaged, extending the travel. Food grows short, and steerage passengers get the worst of it. It is painful for parents to see their children hungry, and the situation calls for desperate measures.
Despite the difficulty of such travel, there are many joyful moments as an elderly couple entertain children with Bible stories and tales that will boost patriotic feelings for both Poland and America.
I recommend this immigration story to everybody, but especially to those whose ancestors came to America during the great immigration wave. It will teach every reader - and it is acceptable reading for youngsters, too - to have the greatest respect for the Poles of the 19th Century who risked so much to start a new life in America.
Jadwiga's Crossing: a story of the Great Migration by Richard J. Lutz