Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Review: A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova

Elena Gorokhova grew up in a Leningrad strangled by Communism. Her mother was a doctor and her dashing father died of tuberculosis when she was young. Her family owned a summer home farm but they were not high up cadre members and so they faced shortages and discrimination like so many others. Gorokhova herself was fascinated by the English language and attended a special school in order to become fluent, working first as a student tour guide and then in other prestigious jobs, ultimately marrying a foreigner and being allowed to emigrate to Texas with her husband.

Gorokhova's childhood was certainly materially different than a childhood here in the States at the same time and her spirit of endurance and perseverance shine through the book. At the same time, she is writing a paean to her mother and the strength of character that she obviously inherited from Galina. The narrative is sometimes episodic in nature as she skims over large swaths of time, occasionally only touching the surface of her feelings at the time or her impression of the feelings of the adults around her. As she is clearly writing this from the vantage point of many years on, it would certainly be acceptable for her to speculate on the adults' experience of Communism more than she does. Her schooling and experience with censorship, toeing the official doctrinal line is illuminating and makes the reader wonder how many others went along with obvious untruths and injustices out of expediency. Although there is an air of want and lack and bleakness, it is also obvious that Gorokhova was raised with much love, whatever the hardships of being raised under Communism. Her rebellion and desire to escape made her unique. Her English speaking ability threw her in the path of an opportunity to make good her escape. And so we have this interesting and very different memoir.

The episodic feel I mentioned above sometimes caused a choppiness to the book and the history of Gorokhova's family felt almost like a rote recitation devoid of emotion. But an interest in Soviet life will overcome the flatness and the pacing issues for the Russophile reader. As an affirmation that Communism, at least as embodied by the former Soviet Union, was hypocritical and ultimately unworkable, this stands out. As a coming of age in a place incredibly foreign to those of us in the west, this will resonate both with familiarity and strangeness. Over all, it was a decent read and I'd be curious to read more from people who grew up under the restrictive regime that so characterized Soviet Communism.

My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a review copy of this book.

1 comment:

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