Monday, January 27, 2014

Rachel's Promise by Shelly Sanders

Rachel's Promise is the second book in Shelly Sander's historical fiction trilogy about a young Jewish girl in the early 20th century. The story is set against the backdrop of the Russian-Japanese war of 1904 to 1905. It follows Rachel Paskar, a Jew, and Sergei Khanzhenkov,  a Christian, as separately,  they leave their home town of Kishinev after the Jewish pogrom has destroyed the Jewish sector, leaving hundreds of Jewish people dead, homeless and without a means of livelihood.

The novel opens with Rachel, her sister Nucia and their mother Ita on their way to Shanghai, China via the Trans-Siberia Railway. They are fleeing Kishinev, Russia hoping to eventually travel to America. At the urging of Sergei, Rachel and her family have taken Menahem with them from the Kishinev Orphanage. Rachel has made a promise to her Christian friend, Sergei to look after the homeless boy. They must travel by train to the very eastern border of Russia, to Vladivostock where they will catch a steamer to Shanghai.

Their journey by train is mostly uneventful except for the frequent searches by the Cossacks who are soldiers who work for the Russian emperor, the Tsar. Rachel meets a young couple, Isaac and Shprintze, who are also traveling to Shanghai.

Upon arriving in Shanghai, Rachel and her sister, along with Isaac and Shprintze find work and begin saving towards their passage to America. While Nucia works as a seamstress, Rachel is forced to work twelve hours a day. Rachel is determined to get herself to America, to get an education and to become a journalist so she can write honest pieces telling the truth about what has happened to her people. To that end she begins to write for Mr. Ezra who publishes a newspaper called Israel's Messenger.  Rachel knows that she and her sister have a ways to go before they can escape the humid dampness of Shanghai and travel to San Francisco in America.

Meanwhile, Sergei is still in Russia but readying to leave Kishinev. His father, a police chief and a drunkard, did nothing to help the Jews during the pogrom. The pogrom had started because of stories printed in the anti-Jewish newspaper, Bessarabetz, which blamed Jews for the deaths of Christians.

Sergei leaves Kishinev and moves to Saint Petersburg to get a job. He is impressed by the beauty of the city with  it's Summer Garden, the beautiful Neva River, the elegant hotels and "stunning cathedrals topped with golden onion-shaped domes...". But when he tries to find a place to stay, the reality of his situation becomes apparent to Sergei. He ends up in a dirty hostel and is soon robbed of all his money. Unable to support himself and find work, he lands a job in one of Saint Petersburg's many dirty factories where the work is dangerous. Sergei is forced due to circumstances, to live in the factory barracks losing most of his wages.

Working in the Putilov factory testing the couplings for trains, Sergei witnesses the workers suffering terrible workplace accidents with little care or concern from factory management. Sergei meets Lev, a twenty-one year old man who works next to him at the factory. Incensed at the terrible working conditions and the poor treatment of injured workers, Sergei learns from Lev about the Party of Socialist Revolutionaries, an organization working towards rights for Russian workers. The party organizes strikes and demonstrations outside factories to try to force the government to enact laws protecting workers and providing better wages.

At first Sergei decides against joining the party because it is anti-government and does not support the Tsar, whom Russians have been taught to love. The strikes are mostly ineffective; organizers are exiled to Siberia and strikers fired. However, in January 1904, when Sergei has an accident at the factory, he decides to participate in his first strike at the Ekaterinoslav factory. The strike is an eye-opener for Sergei, who witnesses the Cossack's intervening.

All of this leads to Sergei becoming more radicalized. He has a chance encounter with Boris Savinkov, head of the Combat Organization known for assassinating government officials. Sergei is eventually invited to a secret meeting in which the organization is planning another assassination of a person Sergei has grown to hate. It is at this point that Sergei begins to question the path he has set out upon.

During all this time he has been writing to Rachel in China and he still desires to travel there and meet up with her and Menahem. But when his involvement with the Combat Organization causes him to lose his job and become a fugitive his plans change. He still wants to be with Rachel, but he has work left to do in Russia before he makes plans to travel to America.

Rachel's Promise was inspired by the author's maternal grandmother Rachel Talan Geary and her sister Anna "Nucia" Rodkin who fled to Shanghai, China from Russia. In the early 1900's, Shanghai was a safe have for many people but especially Jews who fled from pogroms in Russia. The story alternates between Rachel and Sergei's narratives, with the book broken into four parts Summer 1903, Fall 1903, Winter/Spring 1904 and Summer/Fall 1904.

This novel is well written and filled with interesting details about the hardships in Russia over a decade before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution as well as life in Shanghai, China at the turn of the last century. Sanders attention to historical detail is evident throughout the novel, especially in Sergei's narrative. The author's ability to weave these details into the story is one of the strengths of this novel. There's plenty of information about historical events from the turn of the century that young readers may not know much about such as the Russian-Japanese War of 1904-05, and the massacre of workers and Russian citizens on "Bloody Sunday" in Saint Petersburg on January 22, 1905.

Sanders has created well-rounded characters that keep her readers fully engaged. Rachel is intelligent, determined and hard-working, a devoted daughter to their mother dying of consumption in a hospital in Shanghai. Despite the exhausting work at a laundry, Rachel continues to work towards her goal of immigrating to America. Sergei is

Rounding out this wonderful novel, is a map at the front showing Rachel's journey to Shanghai, a Glossary as well as a detailed Historical Note. Highly recommended for those who enjoy historical fiction.

The final book in the trilogy, Rachel's Hope will be published in 2014.

Book Details:
Rachel's Promise by Shelly Sanders
Toronto: Second Story Press   2013
273 pp.

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