The Monthly / The Voracious Child Readers of Russia.

What Was on My . . .

 

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Screen Shot 2013-08-12 at 11.39.13 AMHi and welcome back! If you’ve been waiting all month, desperate to know where I’ve been, what I’ve been reading, and the torture I’ve suffered, you’re in luck. All you have to do is keep reading and you’ll find out What Was on My . . .

Coffee Table: A stack of the 15 best short stories written for the Collège Champittet’s Gothic short story competition. I got to read them all and had the honor of judging which should win the top prize. But, no—don’t even beg. I’m not spilling the beans now. You’ll just have to wait until next Thursday for the awards.

Shoulder, pressing into my skin, until it pricked through, piercing deep: A frightening, terribly long needle. After trying yoga masters and physiotherapy and all things homeopathic, I cracked and succumbed to the cortisone shot for my unrelenting shoulder pain. I’m currently in the 24-hour period of ‘it gets worse before it gets better.’ Sleep deprived and unable to reach far enough to hit the escape key, I’m counting on being sharper and more scintillating for my next post on May 30th.

Easy Jet Plane: Me. And my family and friends, headed to Marrakesh. Yes, it’s true, I loved Morocco so much I couldn’t stay away. Only six months since my last visit, I was back for the dry heat, spicy tagines, and fabulous Berber hospitality. The added kick this time around? A rare no-holds-barred thunderstorm, flooding roads and fields, Mother Nature giving her all. So much like my native Kansas.

Mind: The voracious child readers of Russia.

My daughter’s Russian godmother and ‘godaunt’ have always taken a keen—and rather disappointed—interest in the books my daughter was reading. All those kittens and fairies, only to be replaced by kid-witches, vampires, and futuristic warriors! Where was the true literature? Where were the books that had long been part of the cannon of Russian children’s reading?

First, you must understand that Marina and Ellen Levine are my ideal of Russian bravery, heart, and culture—and have been since the moment I met them 16 years ago in Moscow. As young sisters, they fled the Soviet Union in the ‘70s for the United States and then returned after the fall of the Iron Curtain to found the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, the first private orchestra in Russia. They are smart, funny, erudite, and have been voracious readers since childhood, reading everything they could get their hands on, Russian and non-Russian, ancient and modern.

Screenshot 2014-04-29 21.16.58Now, you may be thinking Marina and Ellen were bemoaning the absence on my daughter’s shelves of Russian fairy tales, or even the semi-autobiographical Les Malheurs de Sophie by the Russian-born Countess of Ségur. Think again. They’d made sure I read both of these to Olivia when she was quite young. No, the books they were stunned to find missing were the American classics they had grown up with: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, The Headless Horseman: A Strange Tale of Texas by Thomas Mayne Reid. Almost every Russian child had read these by the age of 12—and read them more than once.

I am sure the Soviet state approved these books because of their propaganda value. Put together, these three volumes could portray Americans as slave-owning destroyers of Native Americans, who are bigoted against Mexicans. Racists, across the board, in other words. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was definitely used for anti-US propaganda during Soviet times. But it was a double-edged sword. While it derides a racist social structure, it also takes a strong stance against exploitation and encourages readers to be brave and fight for their convictions.

But, quite honestly, these more political questions didn’t play a role for the young Marina and Ellen in their love of this and the other American classics. They speak of reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin late into the night because they were driven by the suspense of Eliza’s run for freedom and their concern for Uncle Tom and Eva. What spoke to them were the emotions, the suspense, the adventure, the heroes, and the friendship.

Russian children also loved Reid’s and Cooper’s books for same reasons. In fact, Cooper’s second name Fenimore, by which he is more readily recognised in Russia, has become a byword for exciting adventures. Loved by even the young Lenin and Stalin, The Last of the Mohicans penetrated Russian society and became deeply imbedded.

As poet Tamara Logacheva says, “The heroic image of a courageous and honest Indian—Uncas—noble and devoted to his vanishing traditions, became an example for imitation by many generations of young people.” So much so, that in its dying months, the Soviet Union released a glorious series of stamps dedicated to Fenimore Cooper’s most-read series, the Leatherstocking Tales.

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And now we come to Mayne Reid. Ever heard of him? I certainly hadn’t. One commenter on Goodreads says she thinks only Russians still read him, and a quick scan of the other readers’ names—Stanis, Giorgi, Yordanka, Boris—shows that she might just be right.

The Headless Horseman—A Strange Tale of Texas has nothing to do with the Ichabod Crane tale that first jumped to my mind when I saw the title. It’s a sort of Gothic Western set in 1860s Texas, which revolves around love, jealousy, and mistaken identity. If you are looking for a book with ethnically diverse characters, stop here. The book is packed with women and men of a wide range of backgrounds—each group seemingly despised by one of the other groups. There are Creoles, Mexicans, Irish, ‘slave-whipping’ Southerners, Northern military, ‘sable faced’ slaves, aristocratic Spanish, and ‘redskins.’

Screenshot 2014-04-29 21.22.03It’s an interesting read, if you’re prepared for poetic language and a bit of melodrama—or simply curious about what captured the imagination of Russian children, both male and female. I loved it! Vladimir Nabokov too. He memorised its passages, even character’s gestures, and it played such a significant role in his life that he dedicated a chapter to it in his memoir, Speak, Memory.

Like, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Last of the Mohican’s, at the core of The Headless Horseman are characters that risk all for those they love, strive for what they believe in, and refuse to let the oppressive acts of others keep them down. And I think this is why Marina and Ellen loved these books so much. As Marina says, “They show you everything you need to know about life—loyalty, love, friendship, and striving for what’s right.”

The Russian symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont once said, “In your childhood and early youth, a book is not literature: everything in it lives and enters your soul.” And so, yes, I now understand Marina’s and Ellen’s disappointment that their goddaughter and godniece hasn’t read their childhood favourites. For them, she is missing something that was an integral part of their childhood, and still is an essential part of who they are.

 

Oh . . . and Marina reminds me that her and Ellen’s ideas of friendship—“like most everybody’s”—came from a German author, Erich Maria Remarque. So, stay tuned, because off I go to find Three Comrades.

But first, what is on my . . . 

Top-Top of the List before even Three Comrades:  Jill Santopolo’s Summer Love, the first in the Follow Your Heart ‘choose your own ending’ series. Because I absolutely cannot wait for May 1st—that’s tomorrow!—when a whole bunch of YA folks will reveal their personal choice for the ending. You can keep up by following Jill on Twitter at @JillSantopolo.

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And be sure to stop by again on May 10 for the quite amazing Amy Rose Capetta, author of Entangled, and on May 20 for the always witty creator of Penelope Crumb, Shawn Stout.

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10 thoughts on “What Was on My . . .

  1. I’m fascinated by the Russians’ top American books, but I also notice that they didn’t choose stories written by cultural insiders either. It’s kind of a paternalistic approach (as a lot of propaganda is on all sides). Hope your shoulder is better soon. Have a great time on your trip. The weather will improve.

    • It is fascinating, isn’t it, Lyn? Another Russian favourite that I didn’t mention–mostly because Marina and Ellen didn’t–is the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, one of the 1st works published by the Soviet publishing house Universal Literature in 1919.

  2. Sandra, ouch on the shoulder issue. I hope it rapidly improves. I love this quote: “In your childhood and early youth, a book is not literature: everything in it lives and enters your soul.” So true. And exactly why we need to make the best children’s books we can.

  3. So fascinating, Sandra. And will order a copy of The Headless Horseman. One of the reasons I want to write for children and young adults is because it affects the soul in ways we can barely grasp as adults, unless we carve a path back to our child-selves. Thanks for this lovely blog.

    • I hope you like The Headless Horseman, Shelley. One of the reasons I loved it is because it is such a great microcosm of history, showing all the many, layered prejudices and stereotypes the different ethnic groups had one against the other. But again, that’s not why Marina and Ellen–and Nabokov–loved it. They loved it for the adventure and suspense and wild-west aspect of it all.

  4. Marina and Ellen are delightful! What a wonderful discussion! So glad they’re in your life. And how lovely that you returned to Marrakesh! I have to ask if you’ve seen the animated movie The Prince’s Quest (a Michel Ocelot film). It’s gorgeous and will make you long even more for Marrakesh!!!

    • Yes, Marina and Ellen are incredible women, it’s true.

      About The Prince’s Quest, I’ve never seen it, but I just took a peek at the trailer and it looks beautiful.

  5. So sorry about the shoulder, Sandra. It sounds miserable. I hope the cortisone shot helps. I loved hearing about the Russian’s favorite American children’s books. Maybe they would be interested in reading a few of your childhood favorites as well.

    • Thank you, Kate. One of the things I find interesting about the books read by Marina and Ellen and the other children in the Soviet Union is that they are books not specifically written for children. Although, I guess at 12 I was devouring Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. So, maybe that’s similar, if not as adventurous.

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