Mar 23 2019

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt

This is another novel whose story I could have easily wandered in and out of, with just a minor tweak or two. Sarah Zuckerman, the protagonist of You Are One of Them, works for an English-language newspaper in Moscow in the mid-1990s. My newspapers were in Budapest, and I didn’t relocate to Moscow for another decade and a half, but the book’s opening rings true nonetheless: “In Moscow I was always cold. I suppose that’s what Russia is known for. Winter. But it is winter to a degree I could not have imagined before I moved there.” (p. 1) Like Sarah, I had known numerous winters in Washington, DC; unlike her, I had not a few in Munich and the nearby mountains, and I had taken to heart the German adage that there is no bad weather, just unsuitable clothing. It was put to the test, though, as was my notion, born of growing up in the sub-tropics, that eventually you just hit a point of cold, and after that you don’t notice any differences. Ha-ha, not so. You feel a drop of three or five degrees way down below freezing every bit as much as you notice the difference between a pleasantly balmy afternoon and one that’s just a tad warmer than comfortable.

But Sarah has not come to Moscow for its brisk winter walks, and the climate does not play much of a role, except to drive Sarah and her expatriate friends into bars to drink, which, to be honest, they were quite likely to do anyway. I know I did, over in Central Europe. “I laughed with them, but I knew that eventually these mistranslations would be corrected, that Russia would grow out of its awkward teenage capitalism and become smooth and nonchalant. You could see the growing pains in the pomaded hair of the night-club bouncers, in the tinted windows of the Mercedes sedans on Tverskaya, in the garish sequins on the Versace mannequins posing in a shop around the corner from the Bolshoi Theater. … Everyone in Moscow was ravenous, and the potential for anarchy—I could feel its kaleidoscopic effect—made a lot of foreigners giddy.” (pp. 2–3) By the time I lived there, many of the translations had indeed been corrected, a great deal of local smoothness had been applied, but the potential for anarchy was still there, still strong. And it wasn’t just the foreigners who were drawn to hungry Moscow. The slightly dodgy IT company where I worked had people from the Altai, from the southern steppes, from all across Russia.

But Sarah has also not come to Moscow for the thrill of the big city or the wild East. She has come to exorcise a very particular spirit, the second great loss of her childhood. Or perhaps to meet a ghost.

After the introductory chapter about life in mid-90s Moscow, You Are One of Them turns back to Sarah’s childhood, a childhood marked indelibly by loss. She had an older sister who died suddenly, of meningitis, on Sarah’s first birthday. Her family never recovers. Sarah’s mother goes to pieces gradually; her father eventually returns to his native England and starts a new life. Sarah’s life re-starts, after a fashion, seven years later when she meets Jennifer Jones. Jennifer’s family moved to Washington from Ohio; her father was a consultant somewhere in the defense-industrial complex. Sarah’s mother works for nuclear disarmament. Jennifer and Sarah become fast friends. The Joneses seem to have a perfect family life, even if nobody is particularly fussed about keeping up with them, and Sarah does not really think about why Jenny chooses to be friends with her.

“It all started when I decided to write a letter to Yuri Andropov.” (p. 66) Like Samantha Smith in our world, Sarah decides to write the then-new Soviet leader about a young girl’s desire for peace in a nuclear age. Jenny joins in, and Mr Jones promises to send the letters onward. Some months later, there is an answer of sorts:

“Jennifer, come down here!” her mother shouted up the stairs.
The urgency in her voice made me think Jenny was in trouble. I followed her down to the kitchen to find out what she’d done.
“Honey, you’re famous,” said Mrs. Jones.
“That was the Washington Post on the phone,” said Mr. Jones.
They had asked her parents to comment on Jenny’s letter to Andropov. It had just been published in Pravda, and the Western news media were picking up the story. The next day the headline of the Post read, AMBASSADOR FOR PEACE IS 10 YEARS OLD. (p. 75)

From that point, Jenny’s story parallels that of Samantha Smith’s, right up to the plane crash that ends her life at age 13. Sarah and Jenny had begun to drift apart, partly through the normal change from elementary school to middle school, but mostly because Jenny went to Russia to be feted by the Kremlin and the international press, while Sarah did not, and while Jenny is away Sarah discovers exactly why. The main difference is that while there were several other victims in the crash that claimed Samantha Smith, and her mother survived because she was not on the plane, Jennifer Jones’ family were the only passengers on the plane, so it was supposedly only the Joneses and the pilot who died.

I say supposedly because shortly before Sarah graduates from college, she receives an unusual letter from Moscow. After the plane crash, Sarah and her mother had set up a foundation to work for peace and international understanding in Jennifer’s name. The letter was addressed to her in care of the foundation, and it was the first contact she had had from the Soviet side of Jenny’s experience. In the e-mail exchange that follows, her correspondent asks how Sarah is sure that Jennifer Jones is dead? That is the question that prompts Sarah to go to Moscow, and the rest of the book is about what she finds there. It’s not what she expects.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2019/03/23/you-are-one-of-them-by-elliott-holt/

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