FEBRUARY 6, 2012
MY MOTHER HAD TOLD ONLY a few stories of her childhood in Vilna, but the one that featured visiting her grandmother in a horse-drawn sleigh always sounded like a fairytale, especially when contrasted with the subsequent nightmare of the Vilna Ghetto. When she took me to see David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago on an enormous screen, one wide enough to hold that epic masterpiece, Lean’s so-much-larger-than-life depiction of Tsarist Russia and the early days of the Russian Revolution added yet more mystique to my mother’s vanished backstory. Although I’d grown up in an area of Upstate New York referred to as “the snowbelt,” I’d never imagined how much snow and ice could collect on the inside of a house, not to mention the mountainous white drifts a steam locomotive could plow through. Since even the traumatic deprivations suffered by Zhivago and his family were suffused with a luminous aura, I developed an ever-growing fascination with that lost world of my ancestors, the one whose destruction began not with the Nazis but long before.
In reading Susan Sherman’s remarkable novel The Little Russian, my brief study of pre-revolutionary Russia has been magnified beyond measure. The book makes clear how many untold stories are missing from our first- or second- or even third-generation American lives. The primary myth, of course, is that most, if not all, of our predecessors came here in the name of religious and/or political freedom; others arrived with the feverish hope of achieving wealth and fame. It is easy to remain less aware of the ones who crossed oceans reluctantly, those who fled their beloved homelands out of desperation, flung into exile because they had no other choice.
Sherman’s novel spans the decades from May 1897 to May 1921, opening with the depiction of a horrifically vivid pogrom that conveys all too well the episodic history of European anti-Semitism, when Jews were either expelled or mass murdered. No mere literary device, this scene foreshadows later repetitions of both small- and large-scale destruction of Jewish communities. Although the book ends more than a decade before the Holocaust begins, readers can’t help but recognize the cumulative devastation that would go on to haunt even the most assimilated Jewish citizens. We know, of course, that worse would await those who managed to survive the pogroms.
After The Little Russian quickly cuts forward to genteel Moscow in 1903, the novel slows its pace. We are introduced to our protagonist, Berta Lorkis, as she travels by train from the refined life she has temporarily adopted in Great Russia back to her origins in Ukraine. Despite her convictions about having permanently outgrown the shtetl outside Kiev, her lack of affiliation with her Yiddish-speaking, grocery-store-owning parents and sister, she learns with horror that her “service” as companion to a distant relative has officially concluded. She is no longer “The Lady from Moscow.”
It was lonely in Mosny. There was nobody to talk to. They were all so irritating in their fanatic adherence to Jewish law and custom, so stubborn and unchanging, without the least appreciation or understanding of culture. No one spoke Russian. They only read Yiddish newspapers and penny dreadfuls. They all dressed badly and bathed infrequently-this being particularly noticeable on hot summer days. No one had ever heard of Balzac, Stendhal, or Goethe or read poetry or listened to a symphony or even heard a piano sonata.
Shocking in her Muscovite silk dresses, daring to read books in public on Saturday afternoons, Berta does what she can to retain her refashioned identity in the midst of everything she had intended to leave behind. When she meets and marries Hershel Alshonsky – who not only speaks French and smokes expensive cigarettes but also reads Yeats – she is indirectly introduced to another form of “modern life.” Although Hershel is deeply involved with the Bund, the General Jewish Workers’ League, and its illegal mission to arm Jews for self-defense, Berta primarily focuses her attention on her husband’s successful role as a merchant in the wheat capital of Cherkast. Our view of Hershel’s activities comes by way of some minor characters who provide the political framework for the era:
The particular branch of Bund activity that interested Pavel was forming the self-defense units to protect the townlets and shtetlakh against the ravages of the pogroms that had been increasing dramatically since the October Manifesto of 1905. Factions loyal to the czar blamed the Jews for what they saw as a threat to the autocracy. The day after the czar announced the manifesto granting a constitutional government to the people, these factions launched pogroms in more than three hundred cities across the Pale, beating thousands to death, destroying homes and businesses, and orphaning thousands of children. That was five years ago. Now Mendel Beilis, a minor factory official, had been accused of killing a Christian boy for ritual purposes-the old blood libel from the Middle Ages revived to stir up trouble. The trial had begun in September. It was now December and the Jews were holding their breath.
To Sherman’s credit, the exquisite authenticity of detail, both domestic and global, shapes this novel in the tradition of great Russian writers. Berta hosts a party that feels as if it could be found in a Chekhov play or a chapter of Tolstoy, where the guests are “castoffs of the prominent families: disinherited black sheep, progressive thinkers, radicals, and artists.” A medium speaks in the voice of a dead child, an image that echoes the ghost whose murder relentlessly motivates Hershel’s gun smuggling. The political is personal, and Sherman’s characters are defined by their time and by actively choosing how to participate in it.
Almost halfway through the book, fortune collides with calamity, and Berta’s life turns inside out. In a brilliantly underplayed scene, Hershel prepares an escape to America while Berta stubbornly refuses to leave her beloved home:
“There’s a new life waiting for us in America. We’ll stay with my sister. I hear Wisconsin is a beautiful place…. “
“I know how people live there, Hershel. You’re not fooling anyone…. I saw pictures of those horrible tenements in a magazine.”
“That was New York City. This is Wisconsin. It’s different.”
“Are you coming with me?”
“No… not now.”
He gave her a level look. “I could insist, you know.”
She held his gaze. “I know.”
“Hershel, please, it happens all the time. You know that. Men go first and the women and children follow.”
Here the novel takes on its most daunting and impressive task, capturing the profound and subtle experience of the First World War by depicting the life of a single mother. Sherman has said that this meticulously researched book was inspired by snippets of stories she heard about her grandmother, and indeed, there are many of us whose grandmothers saved the lives of at least some of their children, thus making our own American future possible. Berta displays such courage and tenacity that no degradation can break her – not even when she is forced to play the part of “house Jew,” selling used goods at the back doors of people who were once guests at her salon.
Thus, Sherman’s readers become witnesses to the ways history can make and then re-make identity. What does it take to endure war and loss and the absolute necessity of beginning again?
While turning the pages of this exceptional debut novel, I was frequently catapulted back to the memory of my mother studying Russian literature, piles of books in her mother tongue scattered throughout the house, evidence of the struggle to complete her delayed college education with two young children and a third on the way. Years later, I followed with my own reading of (translated) Dostoevsky and Turgenev, hoping not just to reclaim her literary legacy but also to revisit my ancestral landscape and the genetics of survival. I confess that I never wondered why those Russian novels were always written by men, even when their stories focused on the lives of women.
In The Little Russian, Susan Sherman offers much more than an eloquently gripping narrative set against an explosive backdrop. She is inviting us to consider the too-often unsung heroines of history, the women whose ferocious willpower and dazzling ingenuity can be more potent than gunpowder when it comes to changing the world.