Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Nonfiction Files

The Nonfiction Files is a weekly journal of my adventures reading my toppling piles of nonfiction books. I won't be posting reviews, but rather my thoughts about what I'm reading, while I'm reading it.

My current read: Stalin's Children by Owen Matthews.

Synopsis from publisher:

On a midsummer day in 1937, a black car pulled up to a house in Chernigov, in the heart of the Ukraine. Boris Bibikov-Owen Matthews's grandfather-kissed his wife and two young daughters good-bye and disappeared inside the car. His family never saw him again. His wife would soon vanish as well, leaving Lyudmila and Lenina alone to drift across the vast Russian landscape during World War II . Separated as the Germans advanced in 1941, they were miraculously reunited against all odds at the war's end.

Some twenty-five years later, in the early 1960s, Mervyn Matthews-Owen's father-followed a lifelong passion for Russia and moved to Moscow to work for the British embassy. He fell in and out with the KGB, and despite having fallen in love with Lyudmila, he was summarily deported. For the next six years, Mervyn worked day and night to get Lyudmila out of Russia, and when he finally succeeded, they married.

Decades on from these events, Owen Matthews-then a young journalist himself in Russia-came upon his grandfather's KGB file recording his "progress from life to death at the hands of Stalin's secret police." Excited by its revelations, he has pieced together the tangled and dramatic threads of his family's past and present, making sense of the magnetic pull that has drawn him back to his mother's homeland. Stalin's Children is an indelible portrait of Russia over seven decades and an unforgettable memoir about how we struggle to define ourselves in opposition to our ancestry only to find ourselves aligning with it.

My thoughts:

The first part of this book has been a terrifying account of what happened to the author's family during Stalin's purges and the start of WWII. Matthews' grandfather, a Party loyalist, ends up on the wrong side of the Stalin/Trotsky power struggle and is forced to sign a false confession of treason, leading to his execution. His grandmother is then arrested, and his mother and aunt (ages 4 and 12) sent to prison, and then an orphanage. They are separated at during the German invasion of Russia, and both live lives of incredible deprivation until, miraculously, they are reunited at ages 10 and 18.

Much of the women's stories has been wrapped up in the evils perpetrated on the Russian people by Stalin and his party in the 1930s and 40s. The systematic starvation of the peasant population and the turning of neighbor upon neighbor was the backdrop to these girls' lives. I can't imagine growing up where such fear and uncertainty was the norm. It's no wonder the two girls bore the scars of this early nightmare for the rest of their lives.

"Solzhenitsyn once posed the same, terrible question. 'If my life had turned out differently, might I myself not have become just such an executioner? If only it was so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good from evil cuts through the heart of every human being...' It is easier to imagine that such acts are committed by monsters, men whose minds had been brutalized by the horrors of war and collectivization. But the fact is that ordinary, decent men and women, full of humanistic ideals and worthy principles, were ready to justify and even participate in the massacre of their fellows."

Once again, I am completely captivated by this story. I often read comments from people who say they don't enjoy nonfiction - I think perhaps they just haven't found the right stories. This book, to me, is just as compelling as any piece of fiction I might read, and the opportunity to learn is immense. If you don't think you like nonfiction, I urge you to give a story like this one a try. I think you might be surprised at how engrossed you find yourself!


Meghan said...

I read this a while ago and I enjoyed the first half but not so much the second. I'll be interested to see what you think as you continue!

Tea said...

I would like to read this book. Oddly, I didn't think of Stalin with a family. I only thought of those horrible purges.

Zibilee said...

I read this book a few months ago, and I really loved it. I thought the story was extremely well rounded and interesting, and you are right about it being terrifying at times. I really think that you are going to enjoy this book, and I look forward to hearing your further thoughts.

violetcrush said...

This book sounds soo good, I'm so envious of all the non-fiction you read :)

Carrie K said...

Oh wow, the book sounds both horrifying and fascinating. Solzhenitsyn has a point, we never know what we're capable of until circumstances provide the answer. Hopefully most of us will never know that answer.

I'm not sure why non fiction is viewed so suspiciously either. Some of it is a dry recitation of facts but there are so many fascinating stories out there that are all the more intriguing because they're true.