By Jeffrey F. Barken/JNS.org
“If you’re sick, move away. Have some consideration for others,” a red army soldier scolds a slow-moving old man selling train tickets.
“No, fires back the old man, proud, haughty, not realizing it’s a new country, a Bolshevik country where force heads the list instead of civility,” reads the following line in Ben G. Frank’s new novel, Klara’s Journey, released June 1.
Reminiscent of Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago—whose backdrop is also a train ride across the Russian frontier during the Bolshevik revolution—Frank’s book retells the social and political history of Russia’s cataclysmic class struggle while imagining the plight of terrorized Jews caught in the middle.
As Klara Rasputnis travels by train across Russia, searching for her father, she witnesses the rapidly intensifying violence and chaos of the Bolshevik revolution. Soon Klara understands that, where convention and culture have disappeared, survival depends on wit and chance.
Shadowed by her jealous brother Mischa, who operates as a red spy in white controlled territories and later becomes a Soviet commissar, Klara places a high price on trust. People choose sides opportunistically, and the beautiful teenage girl traveling alone is easy prey for white slavers and other manipulative men.
When Klara falls in love with a gentile Red Cross worker named Vladimir, all of her loyalties are tested. She must choose between her desire to find love and protection in the arms of a man and fulfilling her promise to her family to seek her father.
“The frightening whistles of trains accompanied by loud gunfire fill the night with fear,” Frank describes one of Klara’s nightmares. This is his method of helping both the reader and Klara’s character digest some of the disturbing imagery she has witnessed on her journey.
Aboard trains, Klara glimpses gun battles, protests, beatings, sexual abuse, and constant anti-Semitism. At one point she even ducks under an older woman’s skirt to hide from Cossacks intent on raping female passengers. Frank spares his readers few details. Klara endures the putrid stench of the woman’s soiled undergarments and is terribly shaken afterward.
Although historical notes listing significant dates and quoting secondary sources briefly interrupt the fictional narrative, Frank provides a convincing background for his characters and methodically weaves their stories together.
“She spots a face she knows coming toward her in the aisle,” Frank writes when Klara bumps into Dmitri Abramovich Dudin, a Red Cross worker she thought was dead. “He stops. Her eyes lock with his. Neither flinch… They stare at each other. To each, the other looks different. He’s lost weight. A pale, thin face. Sunken cheeks. Eyes deep in sockets. His nose is red.”
Short declarative descriptions effectively portray the horror of the revolution as a collective tragic experience. The country traversed is vast, and wherever Klara travels, she encounters new refugees. Their eyes reflect endless train tracks, and their scarred faces recount desperate escapes in an unforgiving struggle to survive.
“Some men play chess on makeshift benches. Some women breast-feed their infants. Some read torn, yellowing newspapers,” Frank writes, describing the crowded scene at the Harbin Hebrew Association, where Jewish refugees have assembled, hoping to flee Russia. He then records their disparate voices:
“Got to get out of here before winter.”
“I’m staying put, there’s money to be made here.”
“Maybe you’ve heard about my cousin in Brooklyn? He’s from Kiev.”
“No. I won’t trade you rubles for cigarettes.”
The chatter and gossip of these refugees reveals the extent to which the revolution has stirred Russian society. Capitalists are preying on the dispossessed, and the breakdown of Russia’s financial system has created new currencies. Meanwhile, families never give up hope that they will be reunited with loved ones when they reach the new world.
Klara’s voice is conflicted. “Go ahead,” she thinks, urging herself to tell her brother about Vladimir, the gentile Red Cross worker with whom she has fallen in love. “Tell him. He’s your brother. He just wants to take care of you. But you’ll have to tell Mischa that Vladimir’s a non-Jew. God. There’ll be hell to pay.”
Russia is indeed becoming a new country. Spies and informants lurk in every town Klara passes through, and as the Russian people grasp for a fresh understanding of their rapidly changing culture, old sentiments and traditions prove confusing and often prevent them from accepting the communist ideal.
Readers will appreciate Frank’s extensive knowledge of Russian mannerisms and geographic landmarks. In a wonderfully crafted scene, refugees stare out their windows as the train passes by the majestic lake Baikal. “The sparkling water calms the passengers and their hunger,” Frank writes, suggesting a brief moment of nationalist-inspired unity that transcends the deep divisions in the country.
The scope of Klara’s Journey is epic. Not surprisingly, Klara becomes sidetracked on her long trek across Russia, but her character evolves dramatically over the course of the novel. Frank provides a fast-paced adventure packed with vivid scenes and well-researched history. He reveals the desperation behind Jewish emigration from Russia in the wake of World War I, and treats Russia’s descent into communism on a human level, exploring how a coercive ideology contradicted the Russian character and soul.
Jeffrey F. Barken frequently reports on Israel news topics and Jewish-interest literature. A graduate of Cornell University and the University of Baltimore’s MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing, he is the author of “This Year in Jerusalem,” a collection of stories based on his experiences living on a kibbutz in Southern Israel from 2009-2010.
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