Category Archives: Russian

The Keeping Quilt and The Blessing Cup by Patricia Polacco

Keeping Quilt and Blessing Cup

Although published a quarter century apart, these are two books that tell a single tears-of-joy-inducing family story. If chronology is important, you might read Patricia Polacco‘s multi-generational family epic out of publication order – that is, Blessing Cup (out this year) first, and then Keeping Quilt (which debuted in 1988, and reappeared this year in an updated, 25th anniversary edition). The former begins with Polacco’s great-grandmother Anna’s life “long before she came to America,” and the latter continues with “When … Anna came to America.”

As a little girl, Anna lived in a Jewish Russian village that was often at the mercy of cruel soldiers. Every week in celebrating Shabbat, Anna’s mother pulled out a remarkable wedding gift tea set: “The tea set is magic,” the giver wrote. “Anyone who drinks from it has a blessing from God. They will never know a day of hunger. Their lives will always have flavor. They will know love and joy … and they will never be poor.” Because the family would always have each other …

When the czar violently ousts Jews from Russia, Anna’s family’s difficult journey to safety is buffeted by the magic of the tea set. When Papa falls seriously ill, a kind doctor shelters and feeds the family, and even makes their escape to America possible. In gratitude, Mama leaves the good doctor her tea set, with the exception of a single cup “so that we can still have its blessing.” And so that Blessing Cup begins a new life in a new land, passed on from generation to generation to generation …

The Keeping Quilt is born in the new country, made of the memories of the old. As Anna quickly grows into her new American life, “[t]he only things she had left of backhome Russia were her dress and babushka.” Anna’s mother gathers all that’s been outgrown and creates a quilt: “‘It will be like having the family in backhome Russia dance around us at night.’” And so the Keeping Quilt becomes an integral part of Anna’s family’s life: it serves as the Shabbat tablecloth, the picnic spread on which Anna agrees to marry Great-Grandpa Sasha, the huppa at many weddings, the warm blanket for each new baby and every elder in old age. As generations pass, the Keeping Quilt, too, grows fragile … but Polacco’s children find a way to lovingly give it new life.

As inspiring as Polacco’s stories are, her exquisite art imbues her words with mesmeric meaning. Using a base of mostly black-and-white pencil sketches, Polacco enhances each scene with splendid, specific splashes of vibrant color – the dancing cut-outs of the Keeping Quilt, the precious details of the Blessing Cup, the spirited backhome babushka, the fine Persian rug that saves four lives, the glowing fire that warms and the sweeping fires that destroy. Polacco’s pictures add the proverbial thousand words to each page as she captures the changing generations, from her orthodox ancestors, to her parents’ non-Jewish wedding guests, to her daughter’s commitment ceremony. Her family’s story is also America’s story – the changing faces, the unforgettable memories, and the unbreakable traditions that bind us all together. L’chaim indeed.

Readers: Children

Published: 1988, 2013

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Jewish, Russian

I See the Sun in Russia by Dedie King, illustrated by Judith Inglese, translation by Irina Ossapova

I See the Sun in RussiaYoung Anton of Saint Petersburg, Russia begins and ends his day with music … he wakes remembering the notes of the ballet Swan Lake which he saw the night before, and drifts off to sleep that evening as his grandmother plays another Swan song at the family’s piano.

Music dominates Anton’s life, from the specialized music school he attends, to his violin lessons followed by his violin ensemble practice, to his mini-performance for his appreciative grandmother after dinner. In between, he visits the legendary Hermitage Museum with his class, helps his mother pick up a few groceries on the way home from school, plays soccer in the hall with a friend, and enjoys dinner with his family.

Anton’s story is somewhat of a departure from the other girls and boys who populate the expanding around-the-world, bilingual I See the Sun series from New England boutique press Satya House Publications: compared to his series’ counterparts, Anton is perhaps the most privileged. While “his parents work long days to provide for their family,” they have access to cultural luxuries that the series’ other children thus far have not, including visits to the ballet and opera, musical instruments at home, even a dacha – a “small country cabin … where they can relax on weekends and vacations in the summer.”

As with the series’ other titles, Russia concludes with a thorough contextual afterword; this one offers a cultural overview of Saint Petersburg, with an emphasis on the arts as a “powerful force.” When the going gets tough, especially in our Stateside schools, arts and music programs usually become the first victims of funding cuts. Anton’s life proves to be a subtle, cross-cultural reminder from the other side of the world to invest in making beautiful music together, with and for our children.

Readers: Children

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Bilingual, .Fiction, Nonethnic-specific, Russian

between shades of gray by Ruta Sepetys

First of all, please do not confuse this spectacular title with that OTHER Shades of Grey. Not that any comparison is even merited, but gray – notice spelling difference – hit shelves more than a year before Grey (March 2011 vs. April 2012), and gray is indisputably the superior title.

This is one of those unput-downable books you finish and repeatedly ask yourself, ‘why didn’t I know more about this before?’ An estimated 20 million people were murdered during Josef Stalin’s reign during the 1930s to his death in 1953. As author Ruta Sepetys explains, the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia “simply disappeared from maps” in 1941 under Stalin’s occupation, and did not reappear until a half century later. Her connection to this history is highly personal: Sepetys is American, but her father was a Lithuanian refugee, and her grandfather a Lithuanian military officer who was miraculously fortunate enough to escape his homeland through Germany into refugee camps.

More than one-third of the population of these Baltic countries were annihilated. Survivors of the massive deportations who spent 10-15 years in terrifying Siberia finally returned to an occupied homeland where they were treated as criminals. Under constant surveillance by the KGB, mere talk of their tragic experiences meant imprisonment; their silent submission was all but guaranteed. “As a result, the horrors they endured went dormant, a hideous secret shared by millions of people,” Sepetys explains in her “Author’s Note.” In this near-perfect debut novel, she reclaims these heroic voices: “Many of the events and situation I describe in the novel are experiences related to me by survivors and their families.”

Lina is just 15 when her happy, privileged world is shattered in just one night; the Soviet secret police – the NKVD – give Lina, her mother Elena, and her 10-year-old brother Jonas just 20 minutes to pack a suitcase and leave their lives forever. The threesome, separated from Lina’s father Kostas, begin a tortuous journey from their home in Kaunus, Lithuania that will pause for almost a year in a labor camp in Siberia’s Altai Mountains, and eventually settle in a hellish prison in the North Pole.

Amidst the mindless violence and monstrous abuse by the Soviet soldiers, Lina and her family survive on moments of shared humanity, whether among the fellow prisoners, or even with the so-called enemy. Elena’s strength rarely falters, keeping sanity intact for her family and their small group of prisoners, even when nothing around them makes any sense. Lina uses her artistic gifts to briefly draw – on a handkerchief, birch bark, and too-precious paper – herself out of her misery whenever she can, even as she bears witness to the atrocities all around her. Her art will prove to be a precious legacy.

In spite of the utterly inhumane history she exposes, Sepetys manages to imbue Lina’s story with overwhelming hope. She seems always aware of her younger readers, and knows when to suggest rather than sensationalize. Without ever diminishing the suffering, she highlights the tiny details that amount to heroic survival, the unbreakable bonds that keep people alive, and the deep hope that gets them to tomorrow and beyond. Like Markus Zusak‘s phenomenal The Book Thief –  another story of a child’s survival amidst brutal tragedy – gray is ultimately an unforgettable, inspiring love story: ” … love is the most powerful army. Whether love of friend, love of country, love of God, or even love of enemy – love reveals to us the truly miraculous nature of the human spirit.”

Tidbit: As noted in my earlier post of Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, I (unintentionally) happened to read gray and Snow simultaneously, the former on the page, the latter stuck in the ears. Read together, they make for interesting companion texts in spite of their many differences, but wrenchingly overlapping they certainly turned out to be. Check out both for yourself and do please share your reactions …

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2011

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, European, Russian