by Warren Buckler, Special to the “Courier-Journal”
To those of us who grew up in the relative stability of 20th Century America, the events that uprooted and shattered the lives of tens of millions of people across eastern Europe during those years seem almost unimaginable.
From the break-up of the Tsarist empire just after World War I, the historical moment in which Louisville author Kay Gill’s new novel is set, until well into the 1980s, that blood-soaked region found little relief from chaos, revolution, mass murder, war and the dead hand of totalitarian oppression.
This book is, among other things, a welcome reminder that our much-criticized country, for all its missteps, was, and remains, a beacon of hope for tormented folks in distant corners of the world.
In this beautifully told story of a young Jewish girl — she’s not yet 10 when the narrative begins — and her emotionally tumultuous journey from a remote Ukrainian shtetl to a safe harbor in Chicago, Gill skillfully conveys the chilling terror that is enveloping the much coveted agricultural lands of what was then southern Russia. Thousands die even in the early stages of what became a decades-long ordeal.
Yet the novel is intensely personal, a tiny piece of a very broad canvas. We perceive everything¬†through the eyes and ears of Sonia, who communicates to us the sights and¬†sounds, sometimes frightful ones, that define her daily life, the fear that pervades her beleaguered community, the strong ties to family and religion, and the wonders of the wider world to which she is introduced as her journey nears its end.
The story is all the more poignant because Sonia’s experiences are a fictionalized version of the early years of a real-life Sonia – Gill’s mother. The author learned many details late in her mother’s life, moving her to undertake this book.
Perhaps that is why Gill succeeds so completely in installing herself in Sonia’s skin. ¬†The emotional swings, the moments of grief and joy; uncertainty and curiosity, anxiety and bravery, affection and revulsion all seem, at least to this elderly reader, appropriate and plausible in a child, not yet in her teens, who must contend with incredibly trying circumstances.
Sonia discovers the worst and most callous side of human nature at a very tender age. At the same time, she owes her survival to the love, courage, generosity and sacrifice of others – family, friends, and even strangers, whose intentions were not always admirable and who could easily have abandoned her.
What’s implicit in this story, however, is that her determination to live, to reach her destination, to realize her dream distinguish Sonia from many others, including her own mother, who failed to seize opportunities to leave.
Staying put appears to have been at least a rational choice while the Romanovs ruled. ¬†Jews were discriminated against and exploited and occasionally the victims of controlled pogroms as punishment for their supposed culpability for social and economic ills. ¬†But Sonia, her widowed mother, Mirel, her brother and sister enjoyed modest prosperity, if not indoor plumbing, and good relations with many gentiles.
When the tsar abdicated and the German army, which had maintained order, withdrew, even the illusion of security vanished. ¬†The White and Red armies and “nationalist” gangs ranged across the land and in their fury, lust and greed destroyed many Jewish settlements. The quest for safety cost Sonia her mother, her siblings and her innocence. Fortunately, relatives in Kiev, connections in Bucharest and two much older brothers in Chicago provided the means for escape.
The reader shudders when cousin Mootsie decides to stay behind because, he believed, the Bolsheviks, by then consolidating their power, would surely bring exciting change and opportunities. One is reminded of German Jews who persuaded themselves that Hitler was a transitory phenomenon. ¬†Alas, the worst was yet to come. Stalin’s brutal rule followed by the Nazi invasion led to mass murder on an unprecedented scale.
After her arrival in Chicago, her brothers arranged for the real-life Sonia to make up for her lack of formal education by attending a prep school connected to Valparaiso University, not for from where I live. She graduated from high school in East Chicago, Indiana, also nearby, at 19. Four years later, she earned her degree in German – which she chose because of its relationship to Yiddish ‚ÄĒ from Indiana University. (She never received her diploma because she couldn’t pay the final fee; Gill retrieved it many years later.) She and her husband, a dentist, and two children eventually settled in Muncie, where they seem to have enjoyed a solid upper-middle-class life.
There’s room for a few quibbles about this book, mainly related to style. Too many of Gill’s images – for instance, “the houses… were squeezed together like eggs in a basket” – don’t ring true. And it’s more than a bit jarring when Ukrainian louts, usually bent on serious crime, talk much like American louts. There’s some loss of authenticity here. And it’s probably unfair to the less violent American species.
Minor complaints aside, this is a wonderful story that needed to be told. ¬†America is rich in stories about the origins of its people, and Gill has given us one that is especially satisfying. Like millions of others, Sonia was forced from her homeland by terror and brutality. While she was lucky to have two brothers waiting for her on the dock in New York, she, like many of our ancestors, risked everything to get here. People from everywhere still clamor to reach our shores. Let’s not forget that our willingness to accommodate them remains an important source of our strength and vitality.
Warren Buckler is a retired Courier-Journal editorial writer. ¬†He lives in northern Indiana where he writes an occasional column for The Forum.