But when Savodnik uncorks Oswald, he finds not an empty vessel but a man filled with an abundance of alienating experiences and desires.
Savodnik calls Oswald an interloper, someone who flees “from his old life and [inserts] himself into a new one adorned with new people and a new landscape and a new language or accent — with the hope that this time he might find a permanent home.’’
Oswald, whose father died before he was born, had moved 20 times by his 17th birthday, not counting when he was temporarily parked with relatives or his three-week stint at a home for troubled youths. The longest he lived anywhere was four years in Fort Worth; he spent a year in the Bethlehem Children’s Home in New Orleans. He had to have been very lonely, a nearly invisible boy.
Just after he turned 17, Oswald for the first time became the author, instead of just the baggage, in an act of interloping: He joined the Marine Corps, mostly to escape his domineering mother. Very soon the slight Oswald concluded that he didn’t fit in. He developed an interest in communism and the Soviet Union, read Pravda in his bunk and talked about communism with his squad mates. None of them took him seriously. Said one to the Warren Commission: “He said this to shock. He was playing to the galleries.’’
But Oswaldskovich, as they called him, was serious; communism’s criticisms of American society felt true to this outsider, and he began laying plans to defect to the U.S.S.R. In October 1959, a month after obtaining a hardship discharge, he took a train out of Helsinki, bound for the Soviet Union.
At this point in the story, Savodnik’s book really comes into its own.
Savodnik has used Oswald’s letters and writings, U.S. and Soviet records, and interviews with people who knew Oswald to construct an in-depth account of the 21
years he spent in Russia. But he doesn’t just show us whom Oswald knew and where he lived; he also shows us the psychological impact of the relationships Oswald developed and the status he enjoyed.
We see a young man who for the first time did something that made people take notice. He had rather courageously left his family and his homeland and gone to live in a much-despised nation that he, alone among his cohort, recognized as a better place. When he arrived, he was accepted as a significant person into a community; he had a job and friends. Unbeknownst to him, much of this had been arranged by the KGB, but no matter: He was noticed, he was relatively happy.