Although “The Sojourn” starts in Colorado at the very end of the 19th century, most of its action takes place in Central Europe in the years before, during and after World War I. In the wake of three sudden deaths, Ondrej Vinich abandons his plans for a new life in America and takes his young son back home with him to the “ol’ kawntree,” that is, to the Slovakia of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So that the boy will have a home, he marries a widow who — in good fairy-tale fashion — spends all the household money on food for her own two sons while starving little Jozef. In a rage, Ondrej, now working as a shepherd, takes Jozef along with him into the mountains. There, year after year, father and son speak only in English, read American books such as the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, and grow in their love for each other. Unexpectedly, this family of two becomes three when a cousin of Ondrej asks him to care for her illegitimate child. Zlee is just a bit older than Jozef, and the two grow up as virtual brothers.
They also grow up as expert marksmen. In one tense and dramatic episode, the two teenage boys hunt a big cat — a lion or puma — that has been ravaging their livestock. Nonetheless, Jozef, who narrates the novel, is slightly in awe of Zlee. His foster brother looked, he tells us, “like some Russian wolfhound, a gaze of regal and indifferent contentment on his face until he pounced, usually to avenge someone weaker who had no means of defending himself, but often enough simply to fight anyone who wore his strength like meanness on a sleeve, and then there was no way of escaping Zlee’s lupine determination to stand and strike, until someone dropped and stayed down.”
When World War I breaks out, the two young men enlist and soon find themselves part of an elite corps of snipers, taught by a wounded veteran named Sgt. Maj. Bucher:
“The sharpshooter should consider himself above rank and disregard it, as it is rank that ought to be hunted first, killing from the top down in order to leave an army leaderless and demoralized. Search for whom and what seems out of the ordinary, he instructed us. The nonuniform, the affectation. Field glasses around the neck out in the open. A scarf of school colors catching the wind. A knitted pullover. An umbrella.”