04. 15. 2013. 20:20

Hunkies in Toledo

Imre Oravecz's new novel, Californian Quail takes the reader into the world of Eastern European guest workers in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. The author spoke about the traumas and the predicament of Hungarian workers in America at a press breakfast in Budapest.

Imre Oravecz started his story of the Árvai family in The Ditch of Ondrok. In that novel, the Árvais tried hard to make a living in Szajla, a village in north-eastern Hungary – the author's native village – whereas in his new novel, Californian Quail, we meet them in the US, in the world of Eastern European guest workers of the beginning of the 20th century.

Although the Americans were not friendly, at least they treated Eastern European workers like human beings. Emigration was not an easy decision at the time of the novel, and it also cost a lot of money. Hundreds of thousands emigrated from the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy – Slovaks, Romanians and Hungarians at the beginning of the 20th century. The American authorities didn't bother to make a distinction between them; they considered them all Hungarians. Democracy was much more advanced in America than in Hungary, and the working conditions more humane, but the American workers, organized in trade unions, hated ‘hunkies’, Oravecz says. The word ‘hunky’ denoted not only Hungarians, but Eastern European workers in general, who were willing to work for peanuts, even as strikebreakers. Most American workers considered them barbarians. A Hungarian, Croatian or Slovakian worker did not join the union and did not live in a detached house with four bedrooms. They usually lived alone since they either left their family at home or the family joined them later. They were regarded as penny-pinchers, because they did not spend money on movies, theatre or clothes. They loved eating, but not what Americans considered decent food. And they had a horrible habit: they drank a lot, and since wine was too expensive, they had to make do with cheap beer and whisky. On the way back from the pub they sang and urinated in the street. Even some academic articles were published – these are quoted in Californian Quail – arguing that Hungarians were an Asian horde now on their way back to Asia around the world, and temporarily stationed in America.

After the outbreak of World War I the situation became even worse. Americans, Oravecz says, forgot that they were democrats, and when they heard a language other than English or Spanish, they thought it was German, and this caused a lot of trouble. The life of guest workers and immigrants was made even harder by the measures of the war years – food rationing and the lack of gas. In the meantime, bad news arrived from back home, about the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919 and the Trianon Treaty, so many of the Hungarians decided not to go back to a ravaged and mutilated Hungary. The immigrants insisted on the habits they had had back in Hungary: they placed a bench in front of the house to sit and gossip on, they kept a cow, and chimed the bells at noon.

The immigrants were mostly peasants, with only a few workers among them. The latter had an easier time because their environment was the same as it used to be back home. However, those who found themselves in a factory after working in the fields experienced a huge trauma. There were some people who did agricultural work, like the community called Árpád’s Village in Louisiana who grew strawberries until the end of the 40s. A number of settlements were founded by Hungarians at the beginning of the 20th century, but their names have disappeared by now. The descendants of the founders do not necessarily continue what the previous generation had begun. And while the Polish immigrant community continued to grow, the Hungarian community did not.

Among the refugees who arrived after World War II and 1956, there were very few peasants or workers. Following World War I quotas were established in the US for immigration, therefore mass immigrations ceased, and those who emigrated did so for different, political rather than economic, reasons. The industry of the beginning of the 20th century has disappeared by now, just like the house where the author’s family used to live. The traces of the Hungarian immigrants are all but intangible, and the bad reputation of hunkies is also gone by now.

The life of Eastern European workers in the States is scarcely documented, and when researchers started field work, there were only the grandchildren of the first generation left to be interviewed. Nobody was interested in the life of workers back then, Oravecz says. He found no American sources about the life of workers on oil rigs. And no diaries either, as workers didn’t keep diaries. He could only rely on personal stories of families and companies. Letters have an important role in the novel since they were the family’s only link to those at home. Correspondence was the task of women.

There are lengthy descriptions in the novel of contemporary technologies and working conditions. Oravecz considers these essential as they were an important part of the characters’ lives, even though some of the details may tire the reader at times.

Many of the guest workers refused to learn English. They considered it unnecessary, since they meant to return to their native country. One of the main reasons for accidents at the workplace, Oravecz says, was that guest workers could not read warning signs.

Californian Quail focuses on two locations. In Toledo, Ohio there was a ten-thousand strong Hungarian community at the end of the 19th century and at the time of World War I, and many people remained there even in the 1920s and 30s. Oravecz's grandparents emigrated to Toledo at the beginning of the 20th century. His aunts were born there, and later on the family moved to Canada where the writer’s father grew up. The novel partly takes place in the eastern part of Toledo, close to Lake Erie. It is not the story of his own family, Oravecz says, but he drew a lot on their life.

The other location is Southern California, where the writer himself lived for some time. There was no Hungarian community there, he says, but on the other hand, he got to know the flora and fauna of the state quite well, and he used this knowledge abundantly in his novel. Oravecz did a lot of research for the novel, but he also had some lucky strikes. In March 2012, for example, he visited California, where volunteers were cutting tamarisk shrubs in the desert. He learnt from them that these plants had been brought to the country after 1945, so he had to delete references to it from the novel as the shrubs could not have been there in 1912. In another place he writes that those who did not live in Toledo or who had just arrived always thought that a storm was about to break out, because there was always a huge tower of clouds above the city. In fact, as Oravecz found in a source by chance, this was steam coming from a nearby coke oven plant. If he hadn’t read about it, he wouldn’t have remembered to write about it. “I cannot imagine anything without some basis in reality”, Oravecz says.

Oravecz Imre: Kaliforniai fürj
Budapest: Jelenkor, 2012

Betti Varga

Tags: Imre Oravecz