Two retired teachers sit in front of their audience at McNally Robinson Booksellers: Sarah Klassen about to read from her most recent novel, The Russian Daughter, and her former fellow teacher, Faith Johnson, interviewing her. Klassen is ninety years old and Johnson looks to be about the same age.
I wonder what has kept them so alert, active and healthy as they discuss Klassen’s book and field questions from the audience. Perhaps the power of “story” is a factor?
Klassen shares with her audience that the novel she wrote was inspired by the stories her mother, who grew up in Ukraine, told her when she was a teenager. At the time she was not particularly interested in what her mother shared but it stayed with her.
Storytelling, but also listening to the story, becomes cathartic for the protagonist of the novel, Sofia. Sofia is the adopted Russian daughter of an infertile Mennonite couple, who has kept her secret far too long.
Sofia stops, surprised. She has not spoken this much and with this much passion since leaving Stillenberg. Why is she suddenly overcome by a need to allow another human being a glimpse into her life? … As often happens, one story prompts another: Sofia finds herself in the role of listener and Annegret gives her the untold portion of her story.
Grief plays a large role in this novel—the heartache of infertility, of not belonging, of not being understood, of losing a beloved child.
Relationships is another strong theme: How do we treat “the other” among us? In Klassen’s book “the others” are the infertile, the handicapped, the servants, the people of different origins.
Although the novel takes place in Czarist Russia over one hundred years ago, Klassen assures her readers that human nature has not changed.
They will identify with the grief of the infertile couple, Isaak and Amalia; with the defiance of the difficult-to-love, adopted Russian girl, Sofia, and that of her classmate, Petya; with the frustration of Amalia’s sister who has too many children; with the enthusiasm and vibrancy of the twins (Boris and Hannah) taken into Amalia’s and Isaak’s family to relieve a sister with too many children; with the kindness of Pastor Lange who is never too busy to lend a listening ear; with the altruism of the Kleins, a couple who is willing to share their home, no questions asked; with the searching and questioning Boris who does not accept easy answers but “wonders where truth can be found — in Pastor Lange’s Bible? in his father’s words? in Fräulein Lange’s teaching? Can there be truth even in the impassioned words of uniformed officials who speak only Russian”?
The novel ends mysteriously, leaving the reader with a question about Sofia, who, as is her pattern throughout the novel, does not fall in line with the family who adopted her but must do things her own way.
Klassen’s novel not only provides the readers with a glimpse into Mennonite village life in Ukraine one hundred years ago but touches gently and with great empathy on themes of family life and society as relevant now as then.
Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder
was born in Chortitza, Ukraine just before the German invasion of Russia and the consequent flight of her family to Poland and Germany. Her family spent five years in the Paraguayan Chaco before immigrating to Canada in 1952. She and her husband lived many years in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaïre, ex-Belgian Congo), returning to Canada in 1984. They moved from Ontario to Manitoba in 2008. Elfrieda received her PhD in German Language and Literature in 2001. She is a translator, freelance writer, and grandmother of eight. You can read more of her writing in her blog.