Reader’s Guide

Here are some discussion points you may want to consider when reading Roads, either alone or in a book group.

What other questions or observations arose in your reading? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Post a comment, if you’re so inclined, or drop me a line.

Reader’s Guide for Roads

Filip thinks of himself as a modern man, the new Soviet citizen, free from the outdated beliefs of Russia’s past. But as he becomes disillusioned with the promise of a bright Socialist world order, where is his place? What does society expect of him, and how does that square with his own understanding, his own ambitions? Where do intellectuals like Filip and Maksim fit into the new scheme of things in their homeland?

Galina’s outlook is apolitical. Steeped as she is in the moral views of her parents, how do her expectations of the future differ from Filip’s? Among her life’s priorities, which ones does she consider most important?

Both Filip and Galina are involved in making art; he is passionate about painting and architecture, she sings. Ilya’s skilled craft work is central to his existence, and sometimes crucial to his survival. Where does each of them place art and beauty in their lives? How does their response compare with Zoya’s love of opera? What effect, if any, do their differing outlooks on art have on their relationships?

What happens when people are unable to freely engage in their religious observances? In a highly structured society, extreme patriotism and political dogma are frequently offered as a substitute for religion to guide daily life and behavior. What are your thoughts on the effectiveness of such change?

Collaboration with the enemy is usually perceived as traitorous and is often punishable by imprisonment, exile, or death. Yet in an area under military occupation, contact with enemy forces is nearly impossible to avoid. Where does survival behavior cross over into disloyalty? How do Borya, Musa, Filip, Anneliese, Dr. Blau exemplify different ways of living with this problem?

Stamp collecting and the game of chess function as a minor motif throughout the story. How does Filip’s preoccupation with his hobbies help define his character? How do these activities relate to his wanderlust, his curiosity, his need for logic? Do they give him any advantage in dealing with the upheavals in his life?

When Hitler’s troops invaded Belorus and Ukraine, they were initially greeted as liberators from Stalin’s oppressive regime. Even though the Nazis’ real intentions became clear almost immediately, many people in the occupied region continued to delude themselves. What examples can you find of naïve ideas among the characters – Filip, Galina, Ksenia, Ilya, Maksim?

When Franz declares his love for Galina, do you believe him? How do his feelings differ from the bond between Filip and Galina, or Ksenia and Ilya? What about Filip and Anneliese?

At several point in the story, the family comes up against evidence of what’s happening to the Jewish people. They are shocked, but remain disengaged. What do you make of their reaction?

Conditions in the German labor camps were marginally better than those endured by prison inmates. Still, the laborers were kept close to starvation, with next to no medical care and no recognition of human dignity. When the camps were disbanded, thousands of people found themselves wandering in a foreign land, looking for a way to survive, knowing that returning home meant certain death. Even in the American DP camps, where conditions were tolerable, there was constant fear of repatriation. How does these people’s refugee plight compare with today’s ongoing crises?

Roads is not a novel about war; it’s an attempt to show how war affects people who are caught up in situations over which they have no control, how they deal with the menace in their everyday lives. Maksim is the only one who witnesses the horrors of combat. Everyone else lives in the wartime environment as civilians, navigating new hardships as they arise. Even Filip and Ilya’s involvement with the ROA can hardly be called military duty. How does this view of the civilian side of the war affect your understanding of Europe and Russia’s ordeal?

The ROA was a desperate attempt to bring about political change in the Soviet Union. Its ragtag army received lukewarm support from Hitler’s commanders, who thought they could use the added manpower in their failing battle against a larger, stronger enemy. Given that the movement was doomed to fail, and would brand any man who participated in it as a counter-revolutionary traitor marked for execution, what function did it serve? Knowing the risks, why did people sign up?

Katya’s birth introduces important change into the family’s life. Her presence affects Galina, Ksenia, Filip, even the unfortunate Marfa; it transforms their status in the world. What kind of life can she expect to have, far from her family’s country of origin, as an immigrant child? What difficulties is she likely to encounter, and what benefits might she receive?

The understanding of home undergoes several shifts in the course of the narrative. Is it still home for Zoya, Vadim, Ksenia, Ilya, when the Tsarist era ends and Bolshevism takes root? Filip comes to embrace home as a state of mind – an idea reinforced by the loss of contact with his family, and the eventual reunion. Is that enough? How does the concept of home change for refugees? For immigrants?

Pirog

Chekhov and Gogol called it the glory of Russian cooking.

Pirog, filled with meat for feast days, or cabbage and eggs for everyday consumption, has earned its pride of place among the many great dishes of Russian cuisine. And yet, like the enigma of the Slavic national character, it is a deeply humble dish, rich in its simplicity. Universal. In Roads, it is the one thing Ksenia must make, at any cost, to feed her son, body and soul.

My personal favorite? Potato with sauteed onions and dill. Or maybe sauerkraut cooked with fresh cabbage….It’s almost impossible to choose one when you love them all.

Build it high with chicken filling and it’s called kurnik; salmon layered with rice and mushrooms in a flaky pastry crust makes it kulebyaka. Any variety formed into handy individual shapes becomes pirozhki, without which no traditional Russian buffet table is considered complete. Whatever its name, you can just call it divine.

Perfect picnic food, satisfying snack, a natural accompaniment to soup, pirog, (or its smaller cousin), is as essential to the celebrated zakuski tray as marinated herring, caviar, beet salad, or chilled vodka.

My grandmother, whose baking skills were legendary, could not teach me how to duplicate her creations. She used an old teacup with a broken handle to scoop the flour; everything else – yeast, salt, eggs – was weighed in the palm of her hand or measured by her unfailing accurate eye. Since her passing, I’ve found recipes to outline the proportions. I know what the ingredients are. I can make savory fillings. I spent enough time in her kitchen to remember the technique. What I have yet to learn is how to knead the dough until it “feels right.”

All the more reason to keep trying.

 

 

Author Note

How did this book happen? The truth is, of course, that it did not happen. A book never does; a book is built. It emerges from elements as surprising as they are banal: an overheard remark dropped by a passing stranger; a random thought; the seed of an idea; a memory.

This book is built of stories – the ones I started collecting, unawares, as a child growing up among Russian expatriates in a community that sheltered its members while they learned how to live in a postwar world that would never again be the same. Like refugees and displaced people everywhere, they carried their mementos, their recipes, their customs and beliefs, their language and music wherever they went. These were the tools with which they began to carve out a home among baffling and sometimes hostile strangers.

Some of the stories were given to me, passed on as heritage. Others I absorbed whenever friends and newcomers gathered around the table, affirming the bittersweet victory of survival through shared recollections, covering their scars with deep melancholy as often as with laughter and song. Among these people, there were those who said nothing at all. Their enigmatic silence carried, for me, its own mysterious eloquence.

Some narratives I surmised for myself. I pieced them together from scraps hinting at an ordeal too painful to recall in its entirety, an ordeal that nagged at the mind or troubled the heart, refusing to be completely forgotten.

I grew older, people aged. Some died, leaving a trail of memories that started to seem less reliable. The stories had changed in the retelling, tinged by nostalgia. There were omissions, contradictions, discrepancies. The people who had made those journeys, endured those terrors, were the survivors; they had buried the fallen and searched for the lost. But the picture was starting to blur. If I was going to tell the tale, I needed facts.

There were books to read and maps to study, Internet sources and firsthand narratives to evaluate and absorb. It was not enough. I had to go, to see some of the places where these things had happened. It would all be different now, after so much time had passed. But I had to go.

I traveled to Russia, Belgium, Germany. I saw the Elbe at Dresden, sailed down the Danube from Regensburg. Trains carried me through the Bavarian countryside and its legendary forest, past villages with tile-roofed houses and into teeming cities. Waiting on the platform for a connecting train to my last destination, I heard the conductor announce, “Plattling, Track Two.” Plattling. It was not on my itinerary, but it was in my story. I had the time.

And what would I see there? Barbed wire around weathered barracks, watchtowers, a labor camp museum, a commemorative plaque? Or a housing development, a shopping mall, every trace of the grim history obliterated under concrete and steel? Which would be worse?

I didn’t go to Plattling. After visiting Dresden, I went home. I had a solid historical framework on which to hang the stories; fresh impressions of people, customs, outlook, and language. And I had a landscape through which to move the composite characters I had created, following them as they embarked on a journey I would now begin to imagine and describe. Already, images, plot points, and lines of dialogue were taking shape in my mind. The work had begun. It was time to build the book.

Clearly, I did not travel the long road to placing this work in readers’ hands alone. I thank my editor, Lindsey Schauer, without whose skilled effort to clarify every narrative and grammatical detail these pages would lack much of any polish or cohesiveness they might possess. Of the fellow writers who accompanied me along the way, I single out these: Roselee Blooston, who was the first to take me seriously, and to give public exposure to my fledgling work; Steve Otlowski, who gave no quarter when it came to historical accuracy, and read an early draft of this book in one exhausting sitting, and Rosa Soy, for her keen ear, her stalwart friendship, and her unflinching confidence in my ability to see this project through to its completion.

Many others listened to the emerging work. I thank them for their attention, for their focused criticism and cogent questions, for suffering through my moments of self-doubt and patches of bad writing. I cannot name them all, for fear of leaving out anyone important; each was important in their own way, and to each of them, I am grateful.

-from Roads: A Novel, copyright 2017, Chicago Review Press.