Thursday, March 25, 2021

The Girl With the Silver Star: a refreshingly old-fashioned protagonist

Greetings, commies!

I am delighted to post the review of Rachel Zolotov's novel The Girl With the Silver Star. I share the Judeo-Slavic connection, so I read it with particular interest. The topic of WWII refugees in evacuation does not get nearly as much attention as it should. So be sure to add this gem to your collection.

My thoughts:

It would not be entirely accurate to file this novel under Russian Literature or Russian History category. Eastern European Jews comprise a unique and enduring sub-culture. The characters of "The Girl With the Silver Star" speak Yiddish in addition to Russian and they retain elements of their religion at a time when atheism was sweeping through the newly formed Soviet Union. It would be more appropriate to file this novel under Jewish literature. Believe me, I am of mixed Judeo-Slavic heritage myself, so I know the cultural nuances. Jews and Russians do not appreciate being referred to interchangeably. Even though the Soviet influences had softened some of their differences, they are two very distinct cultural universes. 

What I found refreshing about this novel is the fact that the speaker/protagonist is not a talking head for "progress". Raisa is a sincere, demure, domestic, feminine, wholesome and in some ways childlike. It seems like historical fiction abounds with female characters that push some left wing agenda. You expect to have some female artist trying to assert herself in a man's world. If you want to take a break from that, try looking at WWII through the eyes of a humble housewife, whose only ambition is to ensure survival for herself and her loved ones. She is not motivated to "change the world" or "improve the lot of women". As matter of fact, Soviet propaganda strove to minimize the differences between men and women. Women were encouraged to ditch the "bourgeois" gender roles, roll up their sleeves and toil side by side with men. In that regard, Raisa is outside the mainstream. It was not common for Soviet women in the 1930s and 40s to stay at home and take care of their children. Raisa is more Jewish than Soviet. Her husband Abraham is equally meek. He never abuses his role as sole provider for the family. That makes the reader all the more concerned for this soft-spoken family man who is hurled into the world of violence that his traditional Jewish upbringing did not prepare him for.

I also found it surprising that the characters spent so little timing thinking and talking about the obvious - the Nazis. There is very little room for rage and hatred in the hearts of the characters. They barely talk about Hitler. It's almost like he is this foggy, distant bogeyman whose name they dare not utter. Or maybe they do not fully understand the enemy's motivation. 

Ultimately, we have to remember that his novel is Rachel Zolotov's recreation of her great grandmother's story. This is not a straight up memoir. It's a fictional reconstruction of family history. 

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