Vaclav & Lena

By – August 26, 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.


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?
HTLike 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?
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?
HTFeel­ing 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.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of 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?