Vaclav & Lena

The Dial Press  2011

 
Two immigrant children growing up in the Russian-Jewish enclave of Brooklyn, New York, anchor themselves to their new land and to one another in this sweet, sweet tale of hope, loyalty and young love. Vaclav is an aspiring magician and Lena is his “lovely assistant.” They stand literally and figuratively on the shifting sands of Coney Island and dream of being magically transported into a bright and shining future. But, of course, magical dreams do not always come true nor can a magic wand eliminate the seamy sides of life. Even ESL class cannot necessarily give a child a vocabulary precise enough to navigate every eventuality. One day, Lena disappears from Vaclav’s life as if she has been conjured away. The kindness of the motive behind the disappearance and the knowledge of the agent of this change are unknown to Vaclav. All he can do is suffer and worry and continue to say good night to an absent Lena year after endless year. He does this with a constancy and a focus rare in one so young. Lena eventually reenters his life and when she does, they both have much to learn about fact and fantasy, forgiveness and forever. Perfect language pitch and a warm, bittersweet ending combine to make this book a magical read.

Interview


by Jaclyn Trop

Jaclyn Trop: Your ear is so attuned to Russian immigrant dialogue and syntax and you use it to such hilarious effect. What is your experience with the Brighton Beach community and how did you decide to write a novel around it?
Haley Tanner:  When I began writing the book I was tutoring young kids in and around Brighton Beach—I was completely fascinated by these tiny, serious little people, six and sevenyear-olds with heavy Russian accents coming out of their little mouths. The juxtaposition was just so interesting. Even so, I don’t think it was a completely conscious decision to write about the Brighton Beach community—or about Russian immigrants in particular. I was just writing a story, and the neighborhood I was working in seeped in and became a natural setting. Vaclav and Lena are, to me, people first—the fact that they are Russian immigrants is just part of their story.

JT: Harry Houdini is Vaclav’s idol. Do you think he will ever outgrow his love for magic? And why does Heather Holliday resonate so strongly with Lena?
HT:  Like his idol Houdini, I don’t think Vaclav will ever outgrow his love for magic. I don’t see magic, which is so much about art and performance and storytelling, as a childish pursuit. I think it’s his true calling and I think he’s one of the lucky few whose passion is strong enough to beat all the odds that are stacked against him. Heather Holliday, who is a real person—still performing, as far as I know, at the Sideshow Theater at Coney Island—was an obvious choice for Lena’s hero. She’s strong, and powerful, and completely in control of her sexuality— all the things that Lena wishes she could be.

JT: What do you think would have happened to Lena if she hadn’t been adopted by a loving mother who had the financial and emotional resources to care for her?
HT:
That’s hard to say. There are far too many kids who are lost in the foster care system, or stay in homes where they’re neglected or abused. Lena is clearly a very lucky kid. I understand that it’s rare for kids her age to be successfully placed in adoptive home and that there are too few parents willing to adopt older children. As for what might have happened to Lena, there are kids who thrive despite the worst of circumstances, and kids who understandably fail to thrive, even in the best of circumstances. I would have to say though, that Lena suffers doubly—she’s neglected, and struggles with English, and so lacks the tool to advocate for herself. As such, she’s trapped in a lot of ways.

JT: How realistic is it that Vaclav and Lena, both Russian immigrants who had to struggle to learn English, would wind up as such happy, well-adjusted, successful teenagers?
HT: I think it’s very realistic! I know a lot of kids who are first generation Americans, who struggle to learn English, and grow up to be happy, well-adjusted, successful teens and young adults. It’s certainly a tough road, and I can’t claim to know how tough, having never experienced it myself, but my favorite thing about New York City is that I’m surrounded by people from all over the world who successfully integrate into and contribute to our amazing city.

JT: Lena’s aunt, Ekaterina, seems to be the picture of evil, but then we hear her side of the story. Should readers feel compassion for her?
HT: Feeling compassion for Ekaterina does not mean excusing her or forgiving her. I think it’s far easier to dismiss other people, to feel anger and blame, than to understand and to feel compassion. It’s far more difficult to feel compassion for Ekaterina, to understand her, and to still hold her responsible for her completely deplorable actions.

Jaclyn Trop is a business reporter for The Detroit News and a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.


Discussion Questions

from WindMill Books

1. Vaclav and Lena is mainly told from the perspective of  those for whom English is a second language. How  does Haley Tanner capture the voice of these people,  and what effect does it have on the way the story is  told?

2. Why near the beginning does Lena push Vaclav away? Is it because of what is happening at home, or is it  something else?

3. Was Rasia right to do what she did for Lena, in the  way she did it? Would you have done differently? How would you have explained it to Vaclav?

4. Vaclav grows up to be an ‘American boy’, according to  his mother. What sort of difficulties do the immigrant  families face – both outside and within their family  circles?

5. Does Ekaterina really care about Lena as she claims near the end?

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