Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Review: The Little Russian

Summary: The Little Russian spotlights an exciting new voice in historical fiction, an assured debut that should appeal to readers of Away by Amy Bloom or Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. The novel 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, The Jewish Worker’s League, smuggling arms to the shtetls to defend them against the pogroms sweeping the Little Russian countryside.

Married and established in the wheat center of Cherkast, Berta has recaptured the life she once had in Moscow. So when a smuggling operation goes awry and her husband must flee the country, Berta makes the vain and foolish choice to stay behind with her children and her finery. As Russia plunges into war, Berta eventually loses everything and must find a new way to sustain the lives and safety of her children. Filled with heart-stopping action, richly drawn characters, and a world seeped in war and violence; The Little Russian is poised to capture readers as one of the hand-selling gems of the season. -- Counterpoint Press

I have had THE LITTLE RUSSIAN by Susan Sherman sitting on my bookshelves for months. And that's a real shame! When I accepted the pitch for this novel, I thought it sounded like a book I'd like. I enjoy historical fiction set around wars and I haven't read a lot about Russia. Plus, the idea that the main character was based on the author's own grandmother had some appeal. Unfortunately, I didn't read this novel right away and now I'm kicking myself.

THE LITTLE RUSSIAN tells the story of Berta Alshonsky, a woman who grew up with a wealthy family in Moscow. When she is forced to return back to her humble home as a grocer's daughter, she is less than thrilled and feels that she doesn't belong in such a simple Jewish village. Things begin to change for Berta when a wheat merchant comes to town and the two fall in love. Little does Berta know that this man is part of the Bund, The Jewish Worker's League; and he helps provide weapons to them so they can defend themselves against the pogroms that are becoming more frequent in Little Russia.

Berta is happily married to this this man and once again living a glamorous life; however, when one of his missions goes wrong, he has no choice but to flee the country. Foolishly, Berta decides to stay behind with her children and her comfortable lifestyle. As Russia becomes more involved in the civil war, Berta gradually loses all of her material belongings and even her friends. She is left with almost nothing and is forced to use her wits to protect herself and her children. This woman who was once vain and materialistic learns many valuable lessons about life, love, and happiness.

Based on the description, THE LITTLE RUSSIAN sounded fantastic; and I had seen some very positive reviews for it including starred reviews in Booklist, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly. To this day, I still don't know why I hesitated to read it because once I started this novel, I couldn't put it down. I was so caught up in Berta's story and I thought the author did a remarkable job of bringing both the characters and the setting to life. I honestly had no idea what was going to happen to Berta and her family, and I couldn't wait to see if things would work out for her.

What's so interesting to me is how much I ended up caring about Berta. Initially, Berta was a little hard to take. She was extremely selfish and materialistic, and she even turned up her nose to her family and their simple existence. She definitely thought she was destined for a "better" life. And she eventually got that when she met her future husband. While I was intrigued by Berta, I can definitely say that I didn't like her.

And then, Berta's world came crashing down. Naturally, I didn't find pleasure in Berta's misery; however, it did soften my view of her. I also think Berta herself became a much more likable character because she put her selfishness behind her. Berta became incredibly strong and resourceful, and she put the needs of her children before her own. In so many ways, she was a war hero and demonstrated the extent women will go to to protect their families. As a mother, I respected how much she evolved and I eventually found her character to be inspiring.

I found it interesting that THE LITTLE RUSSIAN is Ms. Sherman's debut novel because it's very polished. I was extremely  impressed with her writing style. I loved how well she brought the Russian countryside and cities to life, and I thought her descriptions throughout the novel were very vivid. Needless to say, I look forward to Ms. Sherman's next novel. (Just a little background information on the author: She was the co-creator of "That's So Raven," a Disney channel show that my daughter used to watch back in the day!)

THE LITTLE RUSSIAN would make an outstanding book club selection. The story is epic and encompasses so much about individuals and society. I was excited to find a very in-depth reading guide in the back of my copy. And when I say in-depth, I mean in-depth! There are 29 intriguing discussion questions and some recommendations for further reading. Some of the topics you might want to explore include war, poverty, sacrifice, secrets, alienation, religion, success, freedom, love and marriage, grief, duty, dreams, and redemption.

I highly recommend THE LITTLE RUSSIAN to fans of historical fiction!

Thanks to JDPR for providing a review copy of this novel.


Sandy Nawrot said...

Anything that occurs during this time period holds a lot of interest for me. Plus I am loving that cover.

Beth F said...

This sounds perfect for me, especially because my grandfather escaped Russia during the revolution.

bermudaonion said...

I find that time period fascinating too and just love books that are based on an author's family. I bet my mother would love this one too.

Beth Hoffman said...

I really should learn more about Russia. This one sounds good to me!

Serena said...

This sounds like a good book with a lot of things for a book club to explore.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

It sounds to me like I would have a hard time liking Berta enough to stick with it!

Marg said...

I really enjoyed this one too, although there were times when I just wanted to shake Berta, especially at the beginning of the book!

I will be looking out for this author's next book!