by Savannah J. Foley
A MOUNTAIN OF CRUMBS is everything a memoir should be… beautiful, insightful, and transportive. It tells the story of young Elena growing up in Soviet Russia, her fascination with the west, and her efforts to create opportunities for herself despite a culture irrevocably entangled in The Game, called vranyo:
“My parents play it at work, and my older sister Marina plays it at school. We all pretend to do something, and those who watch us pretend that they are seriously watching us and don’t know we are only pretending.”
AMOC takes the reader into the heart of Soviet Russia and plunks you down just before the author herself is born, so that we get a feel for her resilient, military doctor mother, and the struggles she endured to not only marry a husband who wouldn’t eventually die in the war, but care for her village which had no birthing center -until her mother wrote to Stalin himself for permission to set one up in her own apartment.
Like mother, like daughter. Elena was strong growing up, despite several mishaps that intimately portray what life was actual like in that place and time. That was what I loved best about this memoir; not only is it a story, but it’s an immersion and an explanation, a psychological peek into a culture far removed from my own.
Though Elena has lived in the United States for decades now, she still channels the perspective of her childhood and adolescence perfectly. She is the gateway, the translator, showing us something completely different while explaining it in ways we can relate to.
As an example of this different perspective, when Elena is a teenager she works for a tour agency that takes visiting foreigners on carefully structured and scripted tours of her city. The Russia the foreigners see is not the one that actually exists; with guards on street corners and lines for toilet paper beneath signs praising the Socialist Party.
One boy tries to give her a gift to thank her for her help during his visit, but from the gift shop he selects a beautiful silver bracelet. In the boy’s eyes he is giving her something pretty and special; a gift he would give a girl back home. A gift a girl back home would be delighted with.
But to Elena, the bracelet is a symbol of the freedoms he has that she does not. As a tour guide, she is allowed to enter the gift shop with her charges, but she may not purchase anything from it. No Russian can; the gift shop is part of the tour’s facade. It was created to show foreigners that Russians have nice things, but it’s all a sham, part of the vranyo. Besides, what good would a silver bracelet do Elena? She’d rather have a book, or a new pair of pantyhose. Those are the status symbols of her culture, not beautiful bracelets no one is even allowed to buy.
It’s not just the different perspective that I loved, however. Elena’s work is poetic, especially in the beginning as she describes the yellow waters on the shore of her family’s summer home, or the vivid imaginings her young mind produces as a result to every threat: Her father’s near-death on a fishing trip, monsters threatening from every dark corner, and the scents and textures of her grandmother’s garden. This was my favorite passage from the book:
“The o‘s in the Russian word for whirlpool, vodovorot, rolled down his tongue like a handful of peas.”
Billy Collins former U.S. Poet Laureate, of whom I’m a huge fan, even agreed to blurb this book, saying, it is “the Russian equivalent of Angela’s Ashes.”
The only thing I didn’t like about this book was that it ended! We follow Elena through to her marriage to an American in order to get a passport (a mutual decision), but shortly afterwards the book ends. I can’t wait for the sequel to be written so we can see how she reacts to America.
If you enjoy memoirs (like me!), or if you’re curious about Soviet Russia (especially if you like Russian fairy tales and want a bigger insight into the culture that produced them), I highly recommend picking up A MOUNTAIN OF CRUMBS, from Simon and Schuster.
Elena Gorokhova is represented by Molly Friedrich, of the Friedrich Agency.
Savannah J. Foley is the author of the Nameless (originally known as Woman’s World) series on Fictionpress and is signed with the Bradford Literary Agency. Her website is www.savannahjfoley.com, but she updates more frequently on her livejournal. She is currently working on editing Nameless to go out on submissions. You can read an excerpt from Nameless here.