A Mountain of Crumbs
I’m not much of a nonfiction-reader; I usually stick to novels, but when I saw a memoir about growing up in the Soviet Union called A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova, I had to read it. Whenever I think of Russia, I think of little round babushkas with shawls who pinch your cheeks and give you big comfy hugs, or girls wearing fur hats and muffs riding in sleds through the snow on the way to a party, or an underground movement working against the Soviet Union. These mental images probably come from movies, Anna Karenina, and American stereotypes about Russia; Elena Gorokhova’s memoir tells (much more realistically) the story of ordinary people and their relationships.
I really felt for Elena’s mother. She was once a romantic, but after 3 marriages, working in hospitals during the Soviet-Finnish War and WWII, and years of following rules she had become “practical, overbearing, protective.” Even though she wanted her daughters to become doctors like her so they could have a solid job, she let Marina go to a drama school in Moscow and Elena take private English lessons. Elena’s mother was a contradictory woman- she wanted order and stability and condemned rule-breakers, but she was willing to break rules when necessary. When a little boy came to the military hospital with bullet wounds she insisted on treating him and allowing him to stay in the hospital even though civilians weren’t allowed in military hospitals. The reader never really understands Elena’s mother because Elena didn’t understand her until she was older and living in America. The relationship between Elena and her mother was one of the most complicated and interesting things about the book.
The only thing that bothered me about this book was that the timeline skipped around so sometimes I got really confused. She would spend a whole chapter talking about something that was a really big deal when she was a teenager, but in the next 2 or 3 chapters she would talk about something completely different. After that she would go back to the really important event and barely talk about it. It felt like she was saying “Oh, you know that thing I was really worried about and spent a whole chapter on? It happened, and it was weird. Anyway…” I didn’t understand why she skipped over important events that way.
Besides the timeline-skipping, I thought the book was good. The vranyo or pretending game she played was really interesting. Elena described it as pretending not to know something (maybe about the hypocrisy of the government, or the food shortages, or the newspaper propaganda). The other person knows that you know and you know that they know that you know. If I had to do that everyday, I would go crazy.
I loved all the Russian names; Masha, Katya, Nikolai, Slava, Dimka, Volodya. There was even a boy named Dima, like one of my friends from Covenant. I like Russian names and words because they sound so exotic; Elena would probably think that was funny, because , growing up she thought Russian was boring and English was mysterious, and I think it’s the other way around. I was so glad that there weren’t as many names to remember as in Anna Karenina, where everybody had about 20 nicknames. Between trying to remember which nickname belonged to which person and Levin’s metaphysical monologues, I almost didn’t finish it.
I couldn’t resist putting up a picture of Leo Tolstoy. Isn’t his beard awesome?