Friday, January 21, 2022

Treading Water

Or was it more like submersion? Not sure how a week where I only worked two days got so crazy, but somehow it happened. Work spilled over into my leave time and prepping for, then recovering from, a routine medical exam gobbled up every other spare moment, leaving me here on Friday afternoon with no good ideas for a post.

But since I have not missed a single Friday since I began the blog in June 2012, I’m writing in to note that I’m still here and I’ll be back next week with more to say.

Meanwhile, Song of the Sinner (Songs of Steppe & Forest 4) is now officially out in print and available for preorder for Kindle, due for release on Tuesday. Stay tuned for more information on that next week.

I also interviewed Deanna Raybourn  this week for the New Books Network. We discussed her latest novel, An Impossible Impostor, due February 15, and the Veronica Speedwell series more generally. There’s even a (very) brief mention of a contemporary novel, due in September, titled Killers of a Certain Age. I’ll be posting more about that conversation when the interview goes live around the release date. But I can only hope that she had as much fun during that hour as I did.

And if you missed my previous post about Jinny Webber’s Bedtrick, check out today’s LitHub post about the book, which includes the New Books in Historical Fiction interview and a transcript.

Have a great weekend, everyone. See you next Friday!

Image purchased via subscription from Clipart.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Gulag Ballerina

On February 2, 1938—late at night, as was the custom—the Soviet police, then known as the NKVD, arrested a suspected German spy in Leningrad. Stalin’s Great Terror was well underway, meeting arbitrary targets set from the center the previous summer: 268,950 arrests, which should lead to 72,950 shootings and 196,000 prison sentences (8–10 years each) within four months. The specificity of the numbers is itself astonishing, not least because it emphasizes the state’s complete disinterest in the guilt or innocence of the accused.

In this case, the person arrested was Nina Anisimova, an acclaimed character dancer and budding choreographer at the Kirov Ballet. She was one of several dancers investigated for past contacts with one Evgeny Salomé, the legal consultant to the German consulate in Leningrad. Salomé, in turn, was a Soviet citizen of German extraction who appears to have been the kind of avid fan that Russians call a baletoman (ballet maniac). He liked to throw parties and invite the cultural elite of 1930s Leningrad, especially if they knew their way around a pointe shoe.

As Christina Ezrahi notes in her remarkable new book, Dancing for Stalin: A Dancer’s Story of Courage and Survival in Soviet Russia (London: Elliott & Thompson, 2021), there is no evidence that Salomé spied for the Germans. Still less is there any reason to suspect Anisimova of anything worse than knocking back a flute or two of champagne in the wrong company. She had even broken off contact with Salomé in 1934. But her arrest came during the height of persecution in Stalin’s Russia, and Anisimova spent months in detention, followed by a sentence of five years in a labor camp in Kazakhstan. She arrived at the transit camp in October 1938, after a nightmare journey aboard a cattle car, and narrowly escaped a further transit east.

So far, this is a tragic story but not, alas, an unusual one—as the records of the Memorial Society in St. Petersburg, so recently closed down on orders of the Russian government, make clear. But Anisimova’s story did not end there. Her husband, also an artist with the Kirov albeit not a dancer, bent heaven and earth to secure her release—risking his own life and freedom by lodging complaints at all levels of the political hierarchy. Seven months after Anisimova arrived in Kazakhstan—where, in a bizarre twist, she survived by dancing for her captors—her husband’s petition hit the right desk on the right day, and she was summoned back to Leningrad for a review of her sentence. By the end of September 1939, the NKVD had overturned her conviction, releasing her to return to the Kirov, where she continued to dance and to choreograph into her fifties (she was twenty-nine at the time of her arrest).

Life was not smooth sailing even then. In June 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. The Kirov was evacuated to Perm (Molotov, in those days), and Anisimova went with them. But thanks to poor timing and perhaps other factors, her husband and sister stayed behind, narrowly surviving the Siege of Leningrad and the famine that made the winter of 1941 hideous.

Meanwhile, in Perm, Anisimova began work on the ballet Gayané, her greatest triumph—performed to music by Aram Khachaturian and a libretto by her husband. Russian troupes still dance it, although it has never established a foothold in the West.

In the decades that followed her rehabilitation, the two years that Anisimova spent in detention were erased from her record. Ezrahi learned of them only through an archival file that landed on her desk by mistake. From there she pieced the story together.

This is, however, more than the story of one courageous and wrongly accused woman and her steadfast, loving husband. Through Ezrahi’s fluid and captivating prose, readers learn about Anisimova’s suffering but also about the realities of the Gulag; the cynicism of the mass arrests and repression; the Kazakh famine (like the better-known Ukrainian Holodomor, the result of poor state planning and malicious neglect); Soviet prejudice against anyone with ties, however weak, to the previous regime; and much more.

Although we regret and deplore the death and suffering of millions, it is the nature of the human brain to react most strongly to the plight of individuals. This is why reading fiction builds empathy: it draws us into someone else’s emotional experience. The best histories have the same kind of impact. Dancing for Stalin is that kind of book, and even if you’ve never tackled academic history before, give it a try. You’ll be glad you did.

Image: Modern performance of Gayané, © Karen Yan, Own Work, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Vicious Secrets

Most novels depend on secrets. Even where protagonists are completely honest with each other—which they most often aren’t, because their goals do not align, they have yet to establish a trusting relationship, or they lack crucial pieces of the puzzle—there will be other characters who withhold information for various reasons. And in the rare cases when all the players make their goals crystal-clear from the beginning, as can happen in an adventure story, only the author knows how the conflict will resolve itself—and then often not until after reaching the end of the first draft. We may guess that the hero or heroine will come out on top, but the question of how must remain unresolved for most of the story. Otherwise, a plot lacks tension, and readers have nothing to draw them in and keep them hooked until the end.

It’s the depth and kind of secrets that separate one type of novel from another. In Catherine Gentile’s Sunday’s Orphan, the subject of my latest interview on New Books in Historical Fiction, the secrets are deeply buried, profoundly shameful, and have to do with family and identity (the best kind, from a novelist’s perspective, because they offer the most complexity, nuance, and ambiguity). And although all the clues to those final, shattering revelations are present in the opening scenes, the journey is as emotionally fraught for the reader and the discoveries as shocking as they are for the imaginary people involved.

To say more than that would be to spoil the thrill of discovery. Read on to get a sense of the setup, then listen to the interview. But of course, the only way to discover the secrets is to dive right into the book.

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

Even for someone trained from birth to manage a farm, stepping into an inheritance at the age of twenty is not easy. Yet this is the situation facing Promise Mears Crawford when Sunday’s Orphan opens in 1930. Trouble comes at her from many directions. Her adoptive uncle, Taylor Crawford, constructed his farm according to the principles of racial equality, in defiance of the Jim Crow laws in effect all around him. Taylor had the standing to resist opposition from his neighbors, but Promise lacks both his stature and the resources she needs to fulfill the obligations he took on. Her financial constraints land her in conflict with the farm’s foreman, Fletch Hart, a long-time friend whose dreams of becoming a physician she cannot support due to lack of funds.

But the potential loss of Fletch’s friendship pales in comparison to the threat posed by the arrival of Daffron Mears, a self-appointed Jim Crow enforcer whose propensity for vigilante violence is well known throughout the county. Daffron wants a job—in fact, he wants Promise’s farm, which he regards as stolen from him by Taylor—and he is not above manipulating Jim Crow laws to get his way. He implies that he will report Promise to the authorities if she turns him down while giving work to Fletch, a Black man.

To protect her friend, Promise agrees to Daffron’s demand, if only for a week. But Daffron’s return to the farm that he left twenty years before sets off a series of crises that cast doubt on everything Promise thought she knew about herself and her origins.

Catherine Gentile admits in our interview that this was a difficult novel to write. For the same reasons, it is a difficult novel to read. But its unflinching portrayal and beautifully written exploration of a topic too often buried beneath platitudes about the need for change and its particular relevance to the questions of racial injustice that have been front and center the last two years make it an important book.