The Little Russian tells the story of Berta Alshonsky, who revels in childhood memories of her time spent with a wealthy family in Moscow –a life filled with salons, balls and all the trappings of the upper class — very different from her current life as a grocer’s daughter in the Jewish townlet of Mosny. So when a mysterious and cultured wheat merchant walks into the grocery, Berta’s life is forever altered. She falls in love, unaware that he is a member of the Bund, smuggling arms to the shtetls to defend them against the pogroms sweeping the Little Russian countryside. As Russia plunges into war, Berta eventually loses everything and must find a new way to sustain the lives and safety of her children.
Susan gives an overview of the book:
The Little Russian, Prologue
The girl stood on the platform and stared at the wire that stretched out before her. She was young, not much over fourteen, but the body of a woman strained against her ballet costume. She wore dirty pink tights that bulged at the knee and a cardboard tiara that sparkled in the sun. The tulle skirt was torn in several places, dropping sequins on her tights and slippers. Her mother stood directly below her, cranking a barrel organ that alternated between two popular songs.
“It is time to begin, maideleh,” she called up. “They’re waiting.”
It was market day and the air smelled of rotting fruit, manure, and sweating horses. Jewish housewives, still clutching their checkered winter shawls, strolled up and down the aisles of stalls. Over by the rag dealer, women pulled on worn dresses over their clothes. If they liked their reflection in the little mirror hanging on the stall, they kept it to themselves. Better to bargain the price down.
The girl looked out on the crowd that had stopped to watch her. She took a breath and with arms outstretched stepped onto the wire. She paused and waited for the wire to stop bouncing and then took another cautious step. One boy in the back was not fooled by her trepidation. He knew it was all part of the act. He had seen her performance earlier on his way to school and knew she only appeared frightened to win the sympathy of the audience. Soon her confidence would appear to grow as her tricks became increasingly more difficult. In the finale, she would execute a perfect handstand and finish with the splits, her legs delicately balanced on the wire, her arms held high in triumph.
The boy knew he needed to get going. School had let out nearly an hour ago and he was expected at the Chernyi Griaz, a billiards club on the edge of the shtetl that filled with officers from the Zhitomir regiment during the summer months. He went there to play chess and satisfy the bets of those who chose to put their money on him. They called him the wonder boy.
Nobody knew how good he really was. He was always throwing games to keep the odds interesting and the opponents coming. In truth, there was only one man in town who could legitimately beat him, and
I started out as a ceramic artist, working in clay, doing narrative pieces that told a story. I was quite successful in a small way, showing my work in different cities, teaching, running the art gallery at Whittier College and eventually becoming an assistant professor...