The Little Russian: A Novel
By Susan Sherman.
Counterpoint Press, 384 pages, $25
Reader, I have sinned: Two of the seven deadlies impelled me to read this book. The first of these was envy: I envied the granddaughter of the late Israeli finance minister Pinhas Sapir because of her easy access to information about her grandparent, enough information to write her recently published biography of him. For years I have been frustrated by the paucity of concrete information about my maternal grandmother, after whom I was named and of whom I have seen only two photographs. She left nothing in writing, not even recipes − only some beautiful things she knitted.
The second of the seven deadly sins that beset me was sloth. This book promises to tell the story of a woman who lived in Little Russia − Ukraine, not far from where my grandparents and my father were born, “based on a true story,” according to the YouTube trailer for it. I sinned in thinking maybe in some way this book would save me the trouble of obtaining a better sense of my family’s experiences through a painstaking investigation of what it was like to live there in the years before and during the Russian Revolution.
Alas, dear reader, with one important exception, it did not. This book is mostly a compendium of all the scenes − the proverbial cinematic “sweeping panorama” − of that time and place we already have in our collective consciousness. Think “Fiddler on the Roof” meets “Doctor Zhivago,” for a start, with some plotting help from the great English novelists. We get train rides and sleigh rides, droshky rides and cart rides; we get market days and holidays, wealthy homes, bourgeois homes, shtetl homes, peasant homes and slums; farms, factories, offices and salons; tearooms, inns and a bath house; mud and money, pogroms and warfare, Cossacks, Whites, Reds, scorched villages and scenes of urban horror, silk gloves and filthy rags, a little boy’s secret hiding place and a little girl’s deathbed. The prologue is a double whammy: a market-day pogrom scene.
In short, author Susan Sherman seems to focus mostly on the visuals while paying her dues to what seem to be the requirements for an epic about the era, rather than - as shall be seen − on character development, unexpected plot twists or contemplation of the human condition. This partiality to the visual might stem in part from the author’s professional background: As a former chair of the art department of Whittier College in Los Angeles, no doubt she is more practiced at seeing with her mind’s eye than at probing psychological depths and she appears to have mastered the craft of making things look attractive and easy to understand as the co-creator of “That’s So Raven,” a television show for children on the Disney Network.
Berta, the main character, is the person referred to in the title of part one, “The Lady from Moscow,” though she is not really a lady nor really from Moscow. We do first meet her in Moscow, however, as she sets out on a first-class train journey in September of 1903. She is a pretty Jewish teenager from the provinces who has been living with wealthy relatives in the capital, like someone out of a 19th-century English novel.
“Berta, like so many Great Russians, thought of Kiev and the surrounding provinces as a Russian outpost: provincial, backward, but Russified to some extent,” the author writes. “It ... was thought to be the purlieu of reprobates, lazy slum dwellers, and rustics. Berta was born in Little Russia, a small fact she never bothered to share with anyone of consequence. She was a Great Russian, as anyone could see by her fierce accomplishments, tasteful dress and overall refinement.” This belief, unshaken throughout the vicissitudes of the following 18 years, during which Berta remains by and large unchanged, is the axis around which most of the set pieces revolve. None of the other characters seem to change much either, though their circumstances do.
Out of Chagall
When Berta boards the train from Moscow, she is traveling to her true, shabby home, in a Little Russian shtetl that seems to have been lifted straight out of a Chagall painting: “There were staircases leading up to precarious iron balconies, a roof that seemed to be melting off its house, windows that didn’t close and windows that hung askew. Nothing was plumb in Mosny; no angles met; no corners crisp. The whole town seemed to be made of candle wax, crooked, malleable, and unreliable in the hot sun.”
Upon learning that her rich relatives in Moscow have no further use for her services as companion to their daughter and she will not be going back there, Berta sulks and flounces around. Her pride in her education rests mainly on her ability to speak French. She puts her education to use by swearing in French at a young man with whom she collides as she is helping out in her parents’ general store, “calling him an imbecile.”
The young man, Haykel Gregorvich Alshonsky, known as Hershel, shocks her by replying in a full sentence in French. In the best Jane Austen tradition of petulance preceding matrimony, this wealthy wheat trader from a larger provincial town is the man she eventually marries, after the requisite set pieces − a droshky ride, a Sabbath dinner, a kiss in a graveyard.
During their courtship and marriage, Hershel is absent for long periods, on business. In addition, he is secretly organizing Jews across Ukraine to defend themselves against pogroms. With great excitement I accompanied him to Kaminits-Podolsk, the very town from which my own grandmother followed her husband to the United States.
Alas, to my disappointment, Sherman does not tell us anything about the lives of Jewish women there; she tells us only about what the men did: “Eventually, certain offices became known for the concentration of scholars and radicals. The office of the District Chief was known as the Conservatory of Arts and Letters, the Municipal Waterworks became the Academy of Sciences and the Podolia Trade Bank was the Yiddish Literary Society.” This sounds like promising ground for the things Sholom Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer did so well, in depicting worlds of dreamers and layabouts, people with complex sorrows, amazing schemes or dark motives. But what we get is heroics and arms smuggling under cover of the Trade Bank, followed by another pogrom in which the Jews, led by Hershel, finally outsmart the peasants.
In part two, “The Wheat Merchant’s Wife,” Berta lives in a fancy house in the Berezina, the most elegant neighborhood of a Ukrainian town, with servants, two children, fine furniture and pretty clothes again. Not Moscow, but not bad. She has “artistic” friends but no intelligent conversation. Hershel makes more money; Berta nags him about being away so much; he continues his underground and arms-smuggling work, developing contacts with the revolutionaries until he nearly gets caught.
Fleeing from the authorities, he urges Berta to pack up the children and accompany him to Wisconsin, where he has a sister: “It’s a big country. Plenty of opportunity. It could make our fortune.” But Berta cannot be induced to go: “She shook her head slowly. ‘I know how people live there, Hershel. You’re not fooling anyone. Is that what you want for us? For your children? To live like that? I saw pictures of those horrible tenements in a magazine.” He goes, she stays. We don’t hear from him for a very long time, nor does she.
Jewelry, car and home
Gradually Berta comes down in the world, losing her jewelry, her car and her home. In part three, she moves into cramped quarters in a Jewish slum with her sister’s family and scrapes together a living by becoming a “house Jew,” procuring various commodities for gentile families, some of them her former friends. Humiliating encounters abound.
World War I prevents her from getting to World War I prevents her from getting to Odessa to take a ship to America, after all. Her daughter dies of pleurisy in the midst of fierce fighting between Reds and Whites. Impoverished, bedraggled and ashamed, she speaks to a peddler who brings news that her husband is looking for her, “the grand lady from the Berezina.” “You could be her,” he says. “Fixed up a little, you could definitely be her.” She is told to go to Poland, to the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw.
The reward for my virtue (despite my sins) in slogging through all the expected stuff came in part four, “The Border Stealer.” That phrase, “stealing the border” − “genavenin der grenitzeh” in Yiddish − is one I heard as a child from my father, but never bothered to query closely. Berta flees across the border with her sole surviving child, a son; my mysterious grandmother did it with seven young children. I never thought about it before, but now I am impressed.
Here for the first time I read a description of the feat: the ride in the cart of a Jewish playboy potato merchant toward the border with Poland, the taciturn Polish “border stealer” who gets them across the Dniester River and leaves them to fend for themselves on the other side, and the “rabbinical underground” that helped Jews make it to America. There is even a clue to a mysterious stash I came across among my father’s papers: a clutch of neat imperial ruble notes in low denominations − threes and fives. Berta offers to pay a village woman five rubles for a night’s lodging:
“That’s not very much,” the woman says. But when Berta tells her that they are imperial rubles, she accepts the offer.” “The imperial ruble was the only money left in Russia beside the kerenki that had any value,” writes Sherman.
I had to look up “kerenki”; it was the currency issued by the Russian Provisional Government under Alexander Kerensky. Throughout the book there is an inconsistent policy for non-English words; sometimes they are explained and sometimes they aren’t.
The narrative voice is omniscient, straightforward, largely literal rather than poetic and for the most part not very critical. Now and then, however, there are hints that the author does have a more amusing way of looking at things than the general tone indicates. For example, in the description of the women in the challah at the bakery scene: “There were two among them whose skirt and blouse were a deeper shade of black. These garments belonged to the two professional mourners ... whose job was to be the embodiment of sorrow, hopelessness and despair. They were dedicated mourners, blessed with all the requisite talents: a pallid complexion, a sorrowful expression, and an all-black wardrobe.” It is a pity that the author did not allow freer rein to her wit in the rest of the book − perhaps she will in her next novel.
In short, you won’t find many huge literary delights here, nor much that is new about Jewish life in Eastern Europe before, during and after the Revolution. Read part four of this book if you’re curious about how people got from there to the United States, and then curl up with William Makepeace Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” for a much better read about a manipulative, shallow social climber, only without the potted Jewish history.
Vivian Eden is a member of the Haaretz English Edition staff.