May’s stop on the World Party Reading Challenge, hosted by Jill at fizzythoughts, is a Communist country, past or present. The book I selected to read for this month’s party is The Knife Sharpener’s Bell by Rhea Tregebov, which is mostly set in Stalinist Russia.
The novel starts out in Winnipeg, Canada (useless trivia: my hometown!) during the Depression. Annette Gershon, the primary character in the novel, is the daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants who run a delicatessen and even though times are tough, they are managing. Annette’s father, Avram, is disillusioned with what capitalist society has done to the working people, and he decides to close his shop and move his family back to Russia, where he believes the working man is treated better and that Stalin’s Five Year Plans are what is needed to improve living conditions. They head to Odessa, Annette’s mother’s hometown, where other relatives still live and are able to ease the Gershons back into Russian life. The move is hard on young Annette at first:
“When I lived there, I never thought Winnipeg, didn’t think I lived anywhere. But in Odessa, I found myself lost in someone else’s country …. “
but as most children do she quickly adapts and becomes a good student.
Then World War II comes along, and everything is thrown into chaos. Once Germany invades Russia, Odessa is in peril due to its location, and Annette’s father arrranges for the family to flee to Moscow. Annette’s mother refuses to leave Odessa, and while her father makes a last attempt to convince her, the train carrying Annette and her brother Ben leaves. The two are taken in by family friends in Moscow – Raisa, Pavel, and their young son Vladimir – and they are forced to endure the deprivations and tragedies of war and the increasing oppression of the Soviet state.
Annette’s saga does not end once the war does. She makes a choice that most readers would see as crazy (I did) and that causes her story to make some interesting and at times tragic turns.
I enjoyed this novel for its glimpse into a world I’m not entirely familiar with and for the author’s beautifully descriptive writing (even when writing about horrible things). I hope that others will enjoy this book, but since I haven’t seen it widely available in the United States (or available for an outrageous price) I would like to give away my copy to a random commenter to this post. Any comments posted before May 31, 2010, are eligible — please make sure that you include an e-mail address.