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Origins of Tractors
by Marina Lewycka

Some time before my mother died, I sat down and talked with her about her life story, and recorded it all on tape. I was fascinated by her family's history in Ukraine, her idyllic rural childhood, and the hardships the family suffered during the revolution, the famine, the war and their journey to England. I knew some fragments of our family story, and now I wanted to get all the information down while she was still able to tell it to me. One day, I thought, I will write a book about this.

After my mother died, I thought some more about the book I would write, and even started to jot down some ideas. The sections about my mother's store cupboard and garden, and her memories of the Ukrainian famine of 1932, were the starting point of the book I intended to write. Then my father went and did this terrible, unforgivable thing (or so it seemed to me) -- he remarried. And I knew straightaway that this was the story I had to write.

Of course the novel itself is fiction, but the situation which inspired me to write it was real enough. I wanted to communicate the maelstrom of emotions that I, a supposedly mature and rational adult, was suddenly swept up in. The hardest thing for any child, I think, is to see their parents as sexual beings. Coupled with this, is the societal horror of old-age sex. This disbelief and horror are the basis of much of the comedy in the book.

In a previous life, I have written a number of books about elder care, and I have often sat in on family conversations and observed the mixture of love and exasperation with which the grown up children try to cope with the foibles of their parents as they launch themselves recklessly into a second adolescence. This reversal of roles is something that happens in every family, but it is surprisingly little written about. And yet many of us, I suspect, harbour a secret wish not to go gentle into that good night.

People often ask about the origin of the title of the book, and I have to reveal that, yes, my father was an engineer, and he had indeed started writing a history of tractors in Ukrainian. I loved the idea of writing such a wacky book, but to be honest, his version was rather deadly -- crankshafts, gear linkages and that sort of stuff. I realised I could use the idea to tell a different kind of story -- a human story about the world my parents grew up in, and the place of agriculture in the wider socio-economic history of our time. So my version of A Short History of Tractors is all my own. At first, sitting down to write those sections was quite daunting. I thought I would have to plough through piles of dreary engineering textbooks. But the internet came to my aid. I found that cyberspace is full of tractor enthusiasts, all keen to share their knowledge -- and their spare tractor parts. But I did leave those sections of the 'story within the story' in italics, just in case some readers (women readers maybe?) felt like skipping them.

Searching for historic tractors on the internet had another unexpected and amazing outcome for me. I came across a Russian family-search website, and in an idle moment I typed in my father's mother's family names. Almost a year later, one day, I found three emails in Cyrillic script in my Inbox. I had forgotten all about my search, and assumed they were one of those internet scams, but I replied anyway. To my amazement, it turned out they really were my family -- in fact, quite close family members. My father's niece and great niece, on one side of the family, and on the other side my mother's nephew, my cousin. It was as though characters from my book had suddenly come to life. My parents had always thought their relatives must have perished in the war, and they likewise had no idea what had happened to my parents, who seemed to have vanished off the face of the earth. From my cousin I learned that my mother's sister is still alive, aged eight seven, living over there in Ukraine. So I was able to send her a copy of the tape I had recorded, in which my mother talked about her life and everything that had had happened after she left Ukraine, sixty four years ago.

Author
Marina Lewycka was born of Ukrainian parents in a refugee camp in Kiel, Germany, at the end of the war and grew up in England. She teaches at Sheffield Hallam University and is the author of six books on aspects of elder care. She is married with a grown-up daughter and lives in Sheffield.