I have drawn liberally from history to construct my novels. History is the blessing and the curse that has been handed down through the ages to novelists such as myself.
It is a blessing because it informs us of all the multitudinous permutations that the human experience can take: wars, love affairs, marriages, deaths, whatever.
It is a curse because there is so much of it to read.
In writing about my 100-year-old Russian emigree Anja, for example, I read five history books on Russia. My novel is mainly a spiritual journey of one young American woman, but along the way, she meets Anja, and I wanted it to ring true, so I started absorbing the literature. In choosing books, I focused mostly on Stalin’s Great Terror of the 1930s, which Anja lived through, although just barely.
It was a time when Stalin was consolidating his power by killing his enemies. Millions were imprisoned and sent to Siberia for slight or nonexistent crimes. Others were tortured and forced to confess to crimes they never even remotely committed. It is estimated that Stalin killed over 20 million of his own people, mostly for nonexistent conspiracies.
One anecdote in particular stopped me cold (The Sword and the Shield, p. 77). It concerned a diplomat in Paris named Albam. In the Russian Embassy where he worked, his officemates discussed the trial of 16 Russians then going on in Moscow. All they had done was support Trotsky when he was in power, but now, he was out of power. During the conversation, Albam retreated into a deep silence. Later, when Albam read in the newspaper about their execution, he sighed.
That subversive sigh helped to convict Albam and 13 of his colleagues of capital crimes. His wife ended up denouncing him to the authorities, trying desperately to save her own skin.
I could not let that historical footnote be lost to history, so I expropriated it for my own novel:
“How do I explain? It was like when I was young and married with child. Husband living in Oslo under an assumed name. In the homeland, we were all waiting for a knock at the door. One day in October, they knocked on thirty doors and took away all the men in the village. Every one tried and shot. You could hear the gunshots from outside the prison walls. They lined them up two deep to save on bullets. Dropped them in a hole in the ground and covered them with lime. Prison was on a bluff above a river. Sixty years later in a big rain, that bluff washed away. Preserved bodies washed into the river by the hundreds. Everybody’s father and grandfather. That’s what a knock on the door is like.”
Cat’s grin had disappeared and her eyes had widened visibly.
“When you get to my age, everything connects to everything else. Our neighbor was the constable. He heard about the executions at work. He didn’t say anything, he just listened quietly. And then he sighed.”
Cat had tilted her head down, her eyes on Anja’s expensive black leather flats.
“You know they shot him for that sigh? And 38 of his friends and family, too.”
Anja looked solemnly at Cat, daring her to comprehend it. After nearly 70 years, she still remembered every detail.
“Was that your husband Aleksi?” Cat asked.
It seemed to Anja as if she were trying to turn the subject back to valentines.
“No, that was the man who sighed.”
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