Blood Pudding by Ivan Cox is framed as a long-lost memoir of its narrator, Tadeusz Malinowski, one of the seven children brought to America by their virtuous mother and their father “Jumbo.”

Digging deeper into the complexities of the narrator, Ivan Cox is actually the pen name for local doctor and writer Gerald Yukevich.

Dr. Yukevich’s first novel, Cruise Ship Doctor also under the pen name Ivan Cox, related the comic antics of cruise ship doctor and ballroom dancer Oliver Loring. For Blood Pudding, Dr. Yukevich digs into harsher terrain to tell the story of a family that emigrates from Poland to settle in the Pittsburgh area. After leaving Poland in a hurry, the family arrives in a state familiar to many immigrant families both then and now: uprooted, slightly insecure, and sometimes stripped of the reminders of their own heritage.

“Mother and Jumbo never showed us any pictures of their families in Poland,” Tad recalls. “Mother said Jumbo had been in a rush when he first came over, and she had decided her photograph albums could be sent by mail to us later; since she had her hands full on the trip over with the five children, including me in diapers, and all our baggage.” 

Jumbo gets a job in a factory, Tad’s mother at first stays home to look after his siblings, including his brother Ziggy, whose developmental and learning handicaps at one point give rise to a comfortable myth that the whole family was exiled nobility, with a long history of hereditary imbecility.

These and other whimsies from the family history are interspersed with much starker fare. Tad’s mother dies from a self-administered abortion. Tad’s father quickly seems to alternate rapidly between being a rough but caring provider and a monstrous abusive brute. And Tad himself experiences a trauma so harrowing that readers will be holding their breath while they read those passages.

The novel relates young Tad’s reminiscences as a straightforward memoir of early 20th century urban boyhood and its gradual shading into adulthood. Tad is omnipresent, and all his experiences are filtered mostly through the awareness he had as a boy, rather than the more distant summarizing of a much older man. This gives things an immediate, personal flavor readers can find in books like Stop Time by Frank Conroy or Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Wait Till Next Year. We feel Tad’s joys and frustrations with all the unmediated fervor and vulnerability of childhood. 

Readers are right along with him as he makes all the old familiar discoveries about his classmates, about books and learning, about neighborhood politics, and about the mysteries of his own body. The trauma caused by the sudden loss of his mother is just the first of a series of traumas that we watch Tad endure. But one problem with this verisimilitude is pacing. For every potentially exciting development like the bank foreclosing on the family house, there are passages that dwell on small details for too long.

The book’s most inspiring, uplifting thread develops late in the book: “Tadpole” is attending Rehoboth High School and seems destined to being locked into the same low-ceiling and near-hopeless world of his father when hope comes to him out of the blue in the form of Sister Joseph, whose shining kindness and faith in him changes his life completely.

“How could Sister Joseph possibly have suspected,” a stunned Tad recalls, “that her gracious smile was, at that very moment, unchaining me from my dismal existence in Rehoboth and offering me shelter, nourishment, and a simple path straight through the barriers of my life.” 

This unlooked-for redemption positively illuminates the book’s second half, somehow without ever feeling like it’s cheapening the pathos of the first half. The author does a very conscientious job of providing the innumerable period details whose careful placement serves to bring alive again the people and concerns of a long-gone decade. And it is this extended hand of hope that readers will remember.