The Lit­tle Russian

  • Review
By – October 15, 2012

Susan Sher­man is a born sto­ry­teller. Not only does she pro­vide an intrigu­ing plot with numer­ous twists, she allows you to see pic­tures in your mind, replete with smells and sounds. For exam­ple, It was mar­ket day and the air smelled of rot­ting fruit, manure, and sweat­ing hors­es.”

Sher­man fol­lows Hemingway’s advice to writ­ers:Tell them how the weath­er was. And the weath­er was not pleas­ant for Jews in Rus­sia in 1904. Jews either had to pay beyond what they could afford to the offi­cials or suf­fer pogroms. How­ev­er, Berta, the young girl por­trayed ear­ly in the nov­el, is too self-cen­tered to pay atten­tion to the world at large. She is more inter­est­ed in fash­ion, and in main­tain­ing her beau­ty and posi­tion in her wealthy cousin’s man­sion in Moscow, where she had been sum­moned for her use as a com­pan­ion and had been liv­ing for the last six months. She is so shal­low that on the train back to the lit­tle town of Mosny, she doesn’t admit to a stranger shar­ing her com­part­ment that the shab­by man and woman wav­ing fran­ti­cal­ly at her on the train plat­form are her par­ents. She had told her that they were dead.

It is only after she receives her Moscow rel­a­tives’ dis­missal notice, that she becomes aware that she has been liv­ing a delu­sion. She had expect­ed to remain with her rich rel­a­tives for­ev­er and to for­get her fam­i­ly. Once home, how­ev­er, she begins to under­stand who she is, how much she has missed her par­ents and sis­ter. She also real­izes how much she has learned, besides how to dress, dur­ing the last six months…from books she has read in French, from poets she has dis­cov­ered and from the lifestyle of the rich which she had ingest­ed while in Moscow. That is why she can­not respond roman­ti­cal­ly to the ordi­nary Yeshi­va boys in her town and is will­ing to go it alone until a new­com­er, a wheat mer­chant, impress­es her with his intel­li­gence and his wealth.

What ensues after her mar­riage and how she sur­vives after some unfor­tu­nate deci­sions is rem­i­nis­cent of both Scar­lett O’Hara and Becky Sharpe. That is, she remains true to type until she is hum­bled and final­ly forced to tran­scend her weak­ness­es. What­ev­er Berta’s flaws, and one of them may be that she is almost inhu­man­ly resilient, she is a fas­ci­nat­ing woman to read about.

Eleanor Ehrenkranz received her Ph.D. from NYU and has taught at Stern Col­lege, NYU, Mer­cy Col­lege, and at Pace Uni­ver­si­ty. She has lec­tured wide­ly on Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture and recent­ly pub­lished anthol­o­gy of Jew­ish poet­ry, Explain­ing Life: The Wis­dom of Mod­ern Jew­ish Poet­ry, 1960 – 2010.

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