Bookshelf: November 2010 Archives

During the all-too-brief Thanksgiving weekend, I actually did unwind a bit. We had Thanksgiving dinner at my parents' house, along with my sister and her family, and we celebrated my birthday (belated) and my dad's (early). I took the 14-year-old to the Friday night late showing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1. The whole family watched The Sound of Music. We played a game of Clue: While everyone was getting very close to a solution, the four-year-old and I got there first: Miss Peacock, in the theater, with the dumbbell.

One of my birthday gifts was Dancing under the Red Star by Karl Tobien. It's the story of the author's mother, Margaret Werner Tobien and is told as a first-person narrative. I started reading it Thanksgiving night and finished it late Friday afternoon. It is a powerful but accessible story about life in Stalin's USSR and the experience of an American citizen who found herself a political prisoner, a resident of the gulag for 10 years.

Margaret "Maidie" Werner was born in Detroit in 1921. In 1932, her father, a committed socialist, decided to move his family of three to Gorky (Nizhni Novgorod) as part of a large group sent by the Ford Motor Company to help set up an automobile factory there. In 1938, Maidie's father was arrested as an enemy of the state, taken from his home in front of his wife and daughter, never to be seen again. Maidie and her mother survived as best they could, dealing with the privations of the war. In late 1945, Maidie herself was carried off by the NKVD, charged with espionage for Britain (because she had asked two British airmen to find out what they could about her father's fate), treason (because she had asked them to help her get out of the country), and propaganda against the state (because she told friends what life had been like in America). After months of interrogation at Gorky's prison and at Lubyanka, she was sentenced to 10 years hard labor and five years internal exile. During her time in the camps, she is assigned to a "cultural brigade" -- a troupe performing theater and dance for the prisoners of her own camp and nearby camps. Eventually, she makes her way to East Germany, escapes to the west (before the Berlin Wall), and returns to the United States, almost 30 years after she left.

The book is vivid with detail about daily life -- not only the hardships, but also the small mercies that kept hope alive and the ways prisoners found to make the best of their bleak circumstances. There are especially touching details -- Maidie's loud refusal to denounce her father in school; how people in the towns where the prison train stopped en route to the death camps would push cigarettes, candy, bread, fruit, and sausages into the ventilation slats for the prisoners; how Maidie managed to meet her mother very briefly, near the camp, in extremely unpleasant surroundings. The betrayals are striking, too. The Soviet system rewarded treachery. "Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you, and you sold me."

I was fascinated by this book, and I recommend it. It would be suitable for teens and older; while it touches on some mature subject matter, it does so in a delicate way (as you would expect from a story told by a septuagenarian lady born in the 1920s).


Reviews on Amazon, including a detailed synopsis
Reviewed on Blogful of Books
Reviewed on Small World Reads
Reviewed on Curmudgeonalia

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Bookshelf category from November 2010.

Bookshelf: March 2009 is the previous archive.

Bookshelf: August 2014 is the next archive.

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