A sequel to "The Good Neighbors", "Irina" takes place in 1932 and is the story of the last member of the Romanian Dacia family, the lead dancer of the Romanian State Folk Dance Ensemble, Irina, who plans to defect when the Ensemble reaches New York City at the beginning of its tour of America. Irina has been marked for death by the Iron Guard in Romania, a group trying to regain control of the country by spreading fear and hate. She sends a letter, through friends, to her Uncle Josif in South Dakota, hoping that he can help her escape, but doesn't know if he has even received the letter. Her main persecutor is Deben, the lead male dancer of the ensemble, whose mission is to kill her before the troupe returns to Romania. Irina finds help in foiling Deben's plans when she makes a new friend on board the ship to America, Mrs. Ida Epstein, a woman of experience, courage, wealth, and compassion who puts herself at risk also to protect Irina. On their farm in South Dakota, the Dacia family receive the letter and in spite of having little money or resources, find a way to obtain a car, and with their singing and fighting neighbor August Wagner, Josif and his wife Izabela, make a road trip from South Dakota to New York City. There are repercussions from the Chicago gangsters of "The Good Neighbors" as well as new involvement with the Greek mob in Sioux City, Iowa. In spite of the difficulties of the road trip, the group arrives in New York and confronts the treachery of the Iron Guard in Irina's rescue. Other surprises await the group in New York, and back on the farm as the Dacias continue their efforts to become "real" Americans and to grasp the "American Dream" of progress, tolerance, fair play, and neighbors helping neighbors.
As one large epic I found the trilogy far more interesting than I had anticipated. I often appreciate large family story arcs but rarely find them really to my liking. One element that makes this trilogy more appealing to me is that rather than spanning a century or two it takes place in the early 20th century, a period that I find more interesting than some others. It also encompasses both rural and urban settings and conflicts, as well as how the personal obstacles reflect both national and international issues and events. From the dust bowl depression through a growing European crisis, from fierce independence to the irrational bigotry we still face today. This mixture kept the story interesting even during any sections where I was less engaged.
I found The Good Neighbors to be the least favorite of the three for me but it was still enjoyable and is essential to setting the stage for the latter volumes, which suited my interests far more. Irina was very interesting. I liked the way people came together (for the most part) to help each other when trouble arose. Immigrating is never an easy decision or process and political and criminal intrigue just makes the process harder and far more dangerous. Finally, in Debts and Vengeance, the themes of resilience and community come together. Community is not always local. This seems obvious in our current social media world but in the 1930s there was also a sense of community, even if the people are almost an entire country apart in distance.
I would recommend these to any reader who enjoys immersion in an historical period and in a family's plight. While I think any one could be read as a standalone I think the reward of reading is well worth the time investment. There will be peaks and valleys, both within the narrative as well as with your engagement, but the peaks are more numerous and you will feel like you have known these people in real life by the time you finish.
Reviewed from copies made available through Goodreads First Reads.