Monday, January 28, 2008

The Red Passport by Katherine Shonk

This week, I read a stunning short story collection: Katherine Shonk’s The Red Passport. All eight stories are set in the post-Soviet Union, the majority in Russia, but one in Ukraine. The stories themselves all feature an intersection between Americans and Russians/Ukrainians, but the view points differ. Shonk spent a year in Moscow in 1995, and her familiarity with the culture shows. I felt as if I was back there much of the time, and when I finished the book I was left with a deep longing for Krasnodar and my host family there. While I enjoyed all the stories, my favourites were “Our American,” “My Mother’s Garden,” and “Honey Month.”

In “Our American,” thirteen-year-old Ilya is trying to figure out why his brother Sasha, just home from the Chechen war, has changed so much. Then a young American-Amy-moves in next door; it turns out she has Russian heritage and has a year-long job with a collective farm outside Moscow. Sasha begins working as Amy’s driver, and soon Sasha, Ilya, and Amy have become close friends. But when this close friendship leads to dangerous dreams, things get out of hand. I love how Amy’s introduced:
That evening, as they finished dinner on their balcony, the American girl burst onto Elmira Petrovna’s, the sude hood of a forest-green dublyonka coat shrouding her face. She stood sniffling and blowing her nose. When Sasha coughed, she whirled around and lowered her hood. Her pink nose and cheeks emerged as if from a pool of water, the sun’s last years flaring in her dark curls. “Hi,” she said, burshing dampness from her lashes. “I’m Amy.”
Shonk is so good at showing the fundamental differences between Americans and Russians, it’s so impressive!

“My Mother’s Garden” takes place in Ukraine, in an area of extreme radiation contamination. The main character is a grown woman, with a twelve-year-old daughter and a very stubborn mother. The mother’s moved back to their home village, despite the levels of radiation, which spurs most of the conflict. The main character hates having to go back to sucha toxic place, but doesn’t want to leave her mother alone. On the other hand, she categorically forbids her daughter from coming with her, despite her mother’s incessant pleas to see her granddaughter. Americans barely play a role in this story, although this is an American scientist, which is an interesting exploration of the effects on regular people of Chernobyl.

Finally, the last story in the collection is “Honey Month.” The main character is Rachel, an American who has been living in Moscow for the last year with Jack her boyfriend/fiance who’s conducting research there. They’ve planned a honeymoon to Prague, and yet circumstances make Rachel wonder about her relationship. If I say much more, I’ll give away most of the story; but I connected most with Rachel and her very human insecurities out of all of the collection.
Yegor’s eyes narrowed. “What are you, American?”
Did she really say “Da” with an accent? Or did her assitance betray uniquely American luxuries-an excess of time and naivete? Jack would be mortified if he were here, she thought, and for the first time she felt glad he wasn’t. “Da,” she sighed.

I highly recommend this collection, both for those interested in modern Russian, and those interested in how people confront change.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I too loved this book. While providing wit and insight, Ms. Shonk seems to have such compassion and yes, even fondness for her characters. There's not a moment of sentimentalism, but rather a light, ironic understanding of the foibles and vulnerabilities that make us human. I can't wait for her next book.