Mar 30, 2020 in Sociology

Girl at War: How History Can Shape a Personality

People never think of war until they experience it. Even if they see the war on television or hear about it from their friends, they cannot penetrate its meaning deep enough to feel all its peculiarities and comprehend all those horrible events. Sara Novic’s novel Girl at War conveys the feelings and emotions of a ten-year-old girl who experienced war and death of her parents and had to live with these memories alone in a foreign country. The story is fictional; however, while reading it, sometimes it seems that the emotions the characters have are real. Every line of the novel touches the readers’ hearts and souls and does not leave them indifferent. 

The book provides a history of the war in Croatia from the perspective of the narration of a little girl at the beginning and a young woman in the middle. The narrator is the same person, but her way of thinking is different when she is a child and an adult woman. Although one may think that this fictional story has no particular purpose, this opinion is wrong. Through the perspective of two narrators, a child and an adult, the characters’ thoughts, and special attention to language and silence in her novel, Novic manages to reveal the impact of history and memories on people’s personalities and the whole society.

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The Influence of History and Memories on People’s Individualities

The themes of war, human experience and memory, and history in general are central themes of the book. The author tries to prove that history can shape any personality despite his/her background, social and economic status, or well-being. The protagonist of the novel is Ana Juric, a ten-year-old girl, who used to live with her parents and a baby-sister Rahela in Zagreb, Croatia. Her childhood was funny and carefree, although her family was not wealthy. Ana was a tomboy, who played football and rode the bike with her best friend, Luka. They went to school together and ran to the shop to buy some groceries for their mothers. Everything seemed so common and safe until the war began.  

The author uses a specific way of narration. She has two narrators: a little girl and a young woman. Such unusual way of narration confuses the readers and makes them think of the meaning of the story again and again. Thus, the book begins with the words “The war in Zagreb began over a pack of cigarettes”. This short sentence serves as the warrant here that the story will be about the war. The author then continues her first-person narration, and the audience realize that the narrator is a girl who is having her tenth birthday with her family and godparents. 

The first part of the book is focused on the story of Ana’s family and her native city. However, the second part, called “Somnambulist,” transfers the readers to the present, when Ana is already twenty, and she lives in the New York City and dates a young man, Brian, who knows nothing about her past. The third part, “Safe House,” is another part of the girl’s memory, while the fourth part relates to her present in Croatia and her self-realization and discovering of her true individuality.

Such narration from the perspective of the same person of different ages helps the author demonstrate the influence of history on human personality. Thus, from the beginning, the readers are charmed with the girl’s innocent curiosity and her strong belief that everything will be fine. When Ana’s young sister falls ill, the girl says, “‘Maybe she’s afraid of the dark,’ I said, though I knew that wasn’t it”. Her inner desire to support her mother with some hope for a better is revealed in these words. Although the girl felt that her sister was seriously ill, she did not want to upset her mother, and tried to support her in such a naïve childish way. 

Besides, the author depicts the protagonist’s naivety in the following passage: “I didn’t understand why the Yugoslav National Army would want to attack Croatia, which was full of Yugoslavian people, but when I asked my father he just sighed and closed the paper”. Like all children, the protagonist asks questions adult people do not ask, and waits for an honest reply when such reply is impossible. At the same time, the readers realize that the girl had a peaceful childhood, and the coming war was a great unexpectedness for her. The death of her parents became even a greater unexpectedness for Ana, and the first part of the book ends at the moment of their murder and the girl’s survival. Her personality is being shaped by the war eventually. 

The next part of the novel begins in the present, and it seems as if Ana had seen a terrible dream, and all previous chapters were the parts of this dream. However, while reading further, one understands that they were not a dream but her real memories. The author skips over the most interesting part of the story, the moment when the girl’s parents were killed, and the readers’ desire to find out what has happened is overwhelming. Ana has survived, she is in the USA now, and she is going to tell her story to the public for the first time.

 From the beginning of the chapter, the readers feel that her character has changed. She is not a naïve little girl anymore. On the contrary, she is full of disappointment and disbelief: “I felt an odd mix of anticipation and disappointment. Over the years I’d lost faith in the UN”. These words are related to the girl’s past in Croatia, when she ran to the “post office for UN food,” and most of this food was not there. A girl could not know that it was not the UN’s fault that the cities did not receive their help, but the fault of the enemies who intercepted this food. Although now Ana is an adult, her memories shaped her personality and affected her attitude towards the UN and the whole American nation. Thus, it becomes evident that she was disappointed not only in the UN but also in all American people who knew nothing of her native land. 

Interestingly, people tried to express their sympathy, but they did not even know where Croatia and Serbia were situated. The warrant for this fact is the narrator’s irony: “They’d heard about Bosnia; the Olympics had been there in ‘84”. While in the beginning, Ana was an open-hearted and full of beliefs and hopes girl, now, she is an independent woman who does not trust anyone, because she is sure that they do not understand her. Therefore, Ana’s life in the USA, although it was peaceful, shaped her personality and made her stronger but more suspicious of everything.

At the same time, not only the narrative from the perspective of a child and adult, but also the depiction of the characters’ thoughts and memories proves that their personalities have changed throughout the story. For example, the first part of the book reveals mostly positive thoughts of the protagonist, such as her memories of Christmas celebration, birthday parties, playing football with her friends, etc. On the contrary, when she grows up, her thinking changes, and she remembers of some negative or painful experience more often than some positive one: “A memory of my father resurfaced. I had been nervous about performing a solo part in my third-grade Christmas concert”. Ana had recollected all those painful days she spent in Zagreb, and these memories made her think of the Americans as of ignorant people. 

The moment in the classroom is another warrant to the fact that Ana’s personality has changed. When the professor was informed about the 9/11 tragedy, all American students could not even think that it was somebody’s intention. When Ana said, “What if it wasn’t an accident?,” they thought she was mad. It happened because all those students had no similar background as Ana had, and they had never experienced the same terrible things she had to endure. Thus, Ana’s history and memory shaped her thoughts and worldview and changed her personality greatly.    

However, the most powerful elements Novic uses to demonstrate how history changes the individualities are language and silence. From the very beginning, Ana could not comprehend why Serbs had blocked the road to the sea, and why one had to choose between Serbian and Croatian cigarettes. It is evident that Ana’s parents did not want to frighten their daughter; that is why they said nothing: “I had heard people on the news talking about Serbs and Croats this way because of the fighting in the villages, but no one had ever said anything to me directly”. In such a way, parents protected their children. 

Adult people used their language carefully, because the war did not allow them to talk. They also did not talk about some negative things because they were afraid that their words might come true. At the same time, the children were free of such thoughts, and they could not understand the purpose of such silence. Only when Ana grew up, she realized that it was better to keep silence about her past: “In America I’d learned quickly what it was okay to talk about and what I should keep to myself”. Thus, her experience and history shaped her view of language and silence and taught her how to use both of them in a right way.

Another demonstration of silence was the part when the girl had experienced her parents’ death. She was silent at the moment her father talked to her for the last time, and she remained silent for a long time after that. She did not talk to those people who provided her with a shelter, and she did not tell them her terrible story because she was afraid of her own words and of their reaction. The girls’ shock and memory of that terrible day disabled her language skills and made her silent. 

Not only Ana did not talk about her horrible past, but also other citizens were afraid to talk about some dreadful things: “The Safe House had once been just a regular house, though no one ever spoke of whose it was or what had happened to them”. People used silence to forget about their painful existence and distract from the war, pretending that nothing was happening. Later, when Ana was studying at the university, she continued to keep silence about her past in order to avoid useless questions and hurting memories. She was not a curious girl anymore. The war has changed her.

The Impact of History on Society

Although Novic’s book is focused on the lives of several people and their transformations throughout the wartime, the author wants to provide evidence that history is an essential part of every society and culture. Thus, by the example of two different cultures, American and Croatian, the readers can see that their worldviews and lifestyles were different in the 1990s. On the one hand, American people did not endure the same pain and misfortune as the Croatians did, which means that their views were not shaped by the war. They perceived things differently, and the 9/11 attack was one of the examples of this difference. 

On the other hand, Croatians could not preserve a normal way of living after the war, because their memories did not allow them to do so. Novic writes, “Their musings about how and why people stayed in a country under such terrible conditions where what I hated most. I knew it was ignorance, not insight that prompted such questions”. One can assume that people could not leave their native land, although it was poor and ruined, because it was their history. One cannot forget one’s history because without it, all people would be similar to each other, without any individual features. 

When extrapolating this argument to the modern society, one can see how history affects every culture and every citizen of various countries. Thus, for example, the biggest part of the Chinese people was influenced by one sage, Confucius, who lived more than thousand years ago, and his doctrines are still used today as the rules and norms for everyday life. Many post-Soviet countries still cannot move further and reconstruct their societies after the World War II. The war shaped their personalities, and it is uneasy to forget about it. 

Interestingly, in the USA, people live differently because they did not endure such great wars and mass murders, as, for example, Nazi Germany experienced. Thus, American perception of the world and life differs from that of other cultures. At the same time, knowledge of the history gives a possibility to avoid the same mistakes or gain the same success the ancestors had. 

Finally, the novel teaches that children who live in severe conditions and observe horrible events would never perceive this world in the same way the other children do. Ana grew up into a skeptical woman who could not trust anyone because she witnessed how the neighbors and the citizens of the same city became enemies. Even when she moved to the USA, she could not trust anyone around her because of her memories. The same happens when a child grows up in a family of alcoholics, drug addicts, or abusive parents. 

Painful memories of a problem family would never vanish, and an adult person would be affected by them. On the one hand, such person might become a good and kind parent for his/her children; on the other hand, he/she might be even more abusive than his/her parents were. In any case, the history of the family would affect the future of the child. Thus, Ana had to return to her native land and face all her fears to recover from her painful experience and realize who she really was. 

Conclusion

Sara Novic’s novel Girl at War is not just a story of a girl who was the witness of the civil war in Zagreb. It is a novel that demonstrates how history can shape an individuality of every single person and the whole society. The warrants for this argument are the following aspects. The author provides her narrative from the perspective of a little child and an adult to give the readers possibility to better comprehend her protagonist’s inner world and emotions, showing the impact of war on the girls’ self-cultivation. The characters’ thoughts and feelings serve as the examples of changes in her personality, caused by history as well. In addition, language and silence in the book have the same purpose – to focus on the things people want to forget and those they want to share with the others. 

Even today, history shapes the culture and forms the society, making it either strong and independent or weak and dependent on other societies. People’s thoughts influence their lives, and their memories could be either positive or negative, shaping their personalities. Thus, the fictional story of a girl becomes an educational story for the readers, teaching that people should not forget about their history because it will eventually reappear in their memories.

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