by Marina Antropow Cramer
Marina Antropow Cramer's debut novel, Roads, begins with a family in the beautiful coastal city of Yalta, Crimea in the early 1940s. It is well researched, the characters are unforgettable, and the plot takes so many twists that the readers is tied in knots at times trying to imagine how anyone survived at all.
Before long, the Nazis arrive. At first the occupation's only effect on their idyllic life by the sea is shortages of basic supplies. The Yalta citizens adjust to the changes the best they can. Then a few people start disappearing, followed by whole families, and finally the public hangings of their neighbors and friends who were deemed Nazi traitors. The suffering of ordinary Russians during WWII was portrayed with empathy and skill through Galina, her father, Ilya, and her mother, Ksenia. Beautiful sixteen year old Galina offers to marry her seventeen year old childhood friend, Filip, to save him from being sent away to a German work camp, or worse. Despite the atrocities on the streets of Yalta, he and his Communist parents share an arrogant sense of entitlement, often common to those in politics. Galina's parents share a rare devotion to each other and their family. This is the love Galina expects when she hastily marries Filip.
The author's skill at threading themes through the story with her multi layered characters has a spellbinding affect. Galina and her parent's sense of hope and survival are inspiring. In desperation Galina, Filip and her parents volunteer to go to Germany to work in the factories and farms; they wear German uniforms with Russian badges sewn on their sleeves. Their choices make sense to them as they make them, though each decision proves worse than the one before. When they decide to go to Dresden to avoid the bombings, I wanted to whisper to them on the pages, "No, no, anywhere but Dresden!". But of course that is not how the reading process works.
The men and women are soon sent to separate camps and survival becomes a daily struggle. Self-centered Filip continues to work the least and gain the most from his efforts. Galina and Ksenia use the fragmented organization of the church as well as refugee networks to eventually find Ilya and Filip in 1945. By then Galina has lost her naivety, and realizes she will never have the kind of love with Filip that her parents share. She has learned first-hand the true meanings of fidelity, trust, grief and family.
They discover a new world after the war, and the tranquility and joy of their home in Yalta before the war is nothing but a sweet memory—seemingly from another life. They adjust to their ever changing world, a world where the complacent answers of their youth to life's dilemmas would never again be appropriate.
I have read many WWII novels over the years, stories of civilians of German, French, Italian, Japanese, Philippine, Dutch, Norwegian, Russians in the Siege of St. Petersburg, and Holocaust victims but this one has a totally different angle. The author was born in postwar Germany to Russian refugees.
She said this novel started as she was growing up among Russian expatriates and listening to their stories, totally unaware that someday she might creatively combine them into a novel. Readers of this wonderful novel will be forever grateful she did. She does a good service to her Russian ancestry shedding a far different light on everyday Russians than the news media does on daily basis.
Marina Antropow Cramer is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Blackbird, Istanbul Literary Review, and Wilderness House Literary Review. Roads is her first novel. She lives in Slate Hill, New York.
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