The Little Russian
This book is absolutely charming. It enchanted me. I don’t know why, but I’ve always thought of Russia (even Little Russia) as this magical place filled with reds and greens and cold and a language that feels like velvet in my ears, but with people of stunning resolve and strength. It’s a little strange. After reading this, the magic didn’t wholly go away for me, in spite of the horrifying treatment of the Jews. The reason for my continuing enchantment is the main character Berta. The way she trudges on with her life in situations that most people would have simply given up on was heartening. Rarely does one get to watch this kind of strength in a person. It’s awe inspiring. And don’t even get me started on the story of her life. I was expecting a tale of salons and decadence. What I got instead was a gripping tale of the fight for basic survival.
THE LITTLE RUSSIAN spotlights an exciting new voice in historical fiction, an assured debut that should appeal to readers of Away by Amy Bloom or Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. Based on the experiences of the author’s grandmother, the novel tells the story of Berta Alshonsky, who revels in childhood memories of her time spent with a wealthy family in Moscow –a life filled with salons, balls and all the trappings of the upper class — very different from her current life as a grocer’s daughter in the Jewish townlet of Mosny. When a mysterious and cultured wheat merchant walks into the grocery, Berta’s life is forever altered. She falls in love, unaware that he is a member of the Bund, The Jewish Worker’s League, smuggling arms to the shtetls to defend them against the pogroms sweeping the Little Russian countryside.
Married and established in the wheat center of Cherkast, Berta has recaptured the life she once had in Moscow. So when a smuggling operation goes awry and her husband must flee the country, Berta makes the vain and foolish choice to stay behind with her children and her finery. As Russia plunges into war, Berta eventually loses everything and must find a new way to sustain the lives and safety of her children. Filled with heart- stopping action, richly drawn characters, and a world seeped in war and violence; The Little Russian is poised to capture readers as a highly regarded gem of the season.
Although, I can’t profess to being one, I’ve always been fascinated with how Jews were treated throughout history. Thanks to my microbiology training, I learned that Jews were blamed for the Black Plague in the 14th century and their treatment was nothing short of horrifying. In fact, the only area where Jews weren’t accused of poisoning wells was Poland, which is why so many flocked there in the 14th Century. This had the repulsive result of clustering them in a convenient place for the Nazis to then brutally exterminate. (I really wish there were a different word for what happened).
I hadn’t ever thought about Jews in Russia or the Ukraine before, I think mainly because when I think of those two countries I think of the Russian Orthodox. That being said, I’m truly grateful for this book’s description of how Jews were treated in these two countries at the beginning of the 20th Century. I shouldn’t have been shocked by their maltreatment; after all there are people alive today who still think that they use babies in their ceremonies. (Which of course they don’t and I shouldn’t even have to say that.) But I was shocked. Shocked at how the non-Jews could just waltz into a building take what they want and kill the people who had been in there without any repercussions at all. It’s baffling that not only could they walk away, but people would likely congratulate them. I’ve always said that if you could strip everything else away, the race, religion, nationality, etc, etc, then you would be left with a nothing more or less than equal human beings. Reading this story, I had invested in Berta and therefore saw her as, not just a human being, but one that I would very much like to know in real life. She’s strong and brave, but treated horribly for no other reason than her heritage. It’s disgusting and it’s bullshit.
Aside from the religious aspects, I can tell you that the story is A-MAZ-ING. It’s not that it’s fast paced. It’s that it tells nearly the whole story of one woman’s life without ever flagging, reminding me strongly of Patrick Rothfuss, but with a more feminine air. The pace never lags and the tension holds until you turn the last page. Sherman does a phenomenally subtle job of weaving the plot into a tapestry that would rival the classics.
5 ink bottles.