One aftermath of the 1970s is the continuing interest of families in their own histories, a phenomenon spawned, of course, by Alex Haley's "Roots." Now "Remember This Time," a novel of Jews in Russia during World War I and the Bolshevik revolution, comes to us based in part, we're told, on the experiences of the authors' own relatives. Certainly other writers have done this sort of thing, with settings ranging from China to Texas, but Gloria Kurian Broder and her husband Bill have done it especially well. And not the least of their accomplishment is having done it jointly, for collaboration in fiction can be a risky venture.
Part "Little Women," part "Dr. Zhivago" and part kosher deli, "Remember This Time" is the story of the Chodorov sisters who, when we first meet them, are living contentedly in Lyesk, a prosperous Russian village in the Pale of Jewish settlement. The book's heroine, though, is Kala Chodorov, the second eldest, and definitely the Jo March of the bunch. Kala's more mechanical than domestic (she repairs watches, her sisters bake bread); she's also impatient, headstrong and furiously energetic. Her place, like that of everyone else in Lyesk--Father Boris, the priest, Matryona, the midwife, Lavin, the tailor--is secure.
Jews and Gentiles live together there in harmony, and though occasionally curious about the wonders of faraway Moscow and St. Petersburg, the Lyeskers "loved and defended their town, pointing with pride to the cobbled main square, the half-dozen two-storied houses, the gentle beauty of the river, the dense birch wood, the spacious skies and--most important of all--to the fact that Lyesk was an actual rail repair facility a short way off the direct line from Warsaw to Moscow." This last, despite the fact that trains didn't even stop daily.
Kala, particularly, loves Lyesk and its inhabitants. And, in contrast to her parents and sisters, when Germany overruns the countryside in 1915, claiming Lyesk, Kala resolutely considers herself Russian and marches off with the others who are being displaced. This occurs at almost the exact midpoint of the book. Where fortune has previously smiled on the Chodorovs and their neighbors, now is the time of suffering, famine, disease and death. The never-ending stream of delicious raisin-filled cakes and buns that Malkeh Chodorov's family and customers took for granted in the good years are replaced by bread that's "one-half sawdust." Kala, meanwhile, has made her way to Moscow, where she longs for home and is horrified by the violently warring factions of the revolutionary parties.
Though this sounds like wide-screen fiction--the "Dr. Zhivago" part, all political upheaval and forced marches under extreme conditions--it's not really. The Broders zero in on character, viewing both their leads and their extras with warmth and affection. They focus equally on people's strengths and weaknesses and the way human beings grow and change, without seeming to pass judgment. Instead, the reader participates in the best sense, learning to know Kala and Mikhail Kossoff, the dreamy Menshevik poet she marries, as well as others like Luka the peasant or the saintly Reb Pearl. Especially affecting is a description of Kala's reunion in Moscow with her father, Naftali, to whom she has never been close and who has never had her respect, being in her mother's shadow.
"Suddenly Kala grew aware that Naftali had taken hold of her hand. Not since she was a very small girl, and then only rarely, had she felt the dry, tough splintery skin of her father's palm clasping hers. 'Don't upset yourself,' he said. 'It isn't worth it. It's the same all over. Wherever you go in the whole world, politicians carry on.' " And, for the first time, she takes comfort, for the moment anyway, from his words.
This is not to say that all cliche's are avoided. Truly, it is amazing to compare, for example, just how closely the Chodorov sisters match up to the very un-Jewish girls of Louisa May Alcott: one womanly and maternal, one tomboyish and defiant, another pert and stuck-up, another lovable and sickly. As for anachronisms, the bane of historical fiction, if there are any here, they didn't leap out enough to bother me--or my interest in the characters kept me from noticing. Sure, the Chodorov bakery--"beamed ceilings, the side-paneled front windows framed by flowered linen curtains, the rustic tables and chairs gleaming with shellac"--sounds like a Provincetown cafe, but the spirit of the book is neither cute nor touristy.
Many historical novels have us as all-too-temporary visitors, on guided tours to reconstructions of the Crusades or colonial America, as it were. But the Broders succeed in blotting out the signs pointing to the postcard kiosk and in getting us involved with their "fictional" region's daily life. Because of that, we do come away remembering the time.