Friday, April 26, 2013


Fiction loves outsiders. Fish out of water simplify a novelist’s job. They have to ask questions, because they don’t know how the system works (just like the reader). They make observations—and mistakes—that the rest of us will also make about the society being discussed. They learn as we learn, obviating the need for pages of boring description that stop the action cold.

Science fiction and historical fiction, in particular, love outsiders. So much better to show the baffled stranger struggling to understand what drives the natives to haul a pine tree indoors and string lights around it than to contrive a tortured explanation: “Well, yes, Virginia, as I have said every year since you turned three, here in the United States many youngsters believe in Santa Claus. Please, let me tell you about the North Pole, the sled, and the elves. And did I mention he also brings toys to well-behaved children?”

By this point, the snickering reader has long since nominated that book for the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (“Wretched Writers Welcome”) and gone on to other, more rewarding reads.

But outsiders need not come from outside. Insiders can be outsiders, too. For good or ill, the human condition appears to include a need to distinguish us from them, even when “they” have lived among “us” for seven hundred years. This reality forms the backdrop for Lenin’s Harem—the book featured in my most recent interview for New Books in Historical Fiction.

Despite its title, the book does not involve harems in the usual sense (sorry if that news disappoints). Instead it refers to a joke/insult applied to the Latvian Red Riflemen, an elite military unit charged with guarding the Kremlin—dubbed “Lenin’s Harem” by the local wags because of its subordination to the first Bolshevik leader.

The rest of this post comes from the description at New Books in Historical Fiction.

One night in the Russian imperial province of Courland, an eleven-year-old boy more than a little drunk on his parents’ champagne slips away from his aristocratic manor and heads for the village that houses his family’s Latvian farmhands. It is Christmas 1905, two months after Emperor Nicholas II of Russia’s October Manifesto has turned his autocracy into the semblance of a constitutional monarchy, and the subject peoples of his empire are restive. In Courland, a province governed by Baltic barons who descend from the thirteenth-century chivalric orders of the Teutonic and Livonian Knights, that hope for change centers on the populace’s desire for independence from its German overlords—even more than from the Russian Empire itself.

Thus begins the story of Wiktor Rooks, a Baltic German boy who soon sees his family’s estate burned, its ancestral property lost, and his own future compromised. Wiktor yearns for the academic life, but family tradition requires him, as a second son, to become a soldier. He joins the Russian imperial army, which assigns him to spy on a unit full of Latvian soldiers eager to rid themselves of men like him. Slowly he wins their trust, and the friendships he forms there—and the wartime atrocities he witnesses—send him into the ranks of the Latvian Red Riflemen. By 1918, he is guarding the new Soviet government.

When Latvia achieves its independence in 1921, Wiktor’s fortunes change again, and he returns to the land of his birth. There he strives, once and for all, to overcome his past as the second son of a Baltic baron. But soon the forces of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia are massing, and tiny Latvia stands smack in their way.

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