Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Klara’s Journey Casts Jews in Fast-Paced Adventure Through Russian History

June 12, 2013 12:40 am 0 comments

The cover of Ben G. Frank's "Klara's Journey," covered by Jeffrey F. Barken in a book review for JNS.org. Photo: Marion Street Press.

JNS.org – “If you’re sick, move away. Have some consideration for others,” a red army soldier scolds a slow-moving old man selling train tickets.

No, fires back the old man, proud, haughty, not realizing it’s a new country, a Bolshevik country where force heads the list instead of civility,” reads the following line in Ben G. Frank’s new novel, Klara’s Journey, released June 1.

Reminiscent of Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago—whose backdrop is also a train ride across the Russian frontier during the Bolshevik revolution—Frank’s book retells the social and political history of Russia’s cataclysmic class struggle while imagining the plight of terrorized Jews caught in the middle.

As Klara Rasputnis travels by train across Russia, searching for her father, she witnesses the rapidly intensifying violence and chaos of the Bolshevik revolution. Soon Klara understands that, where convention and culture have disappeared, survival depends on wit and chance.

Shadowed by her jealous brother Mischa, who operates as a red spy in white controlled territories and later becomes a Soviet commissar, Klara places a high price on trust. People choose sides opportunistically, and the beautiful teenage girl traveling alone is easy prey for white slavers and other manipulative men.

When Klara falls in love with a gentile Red Cross worker named Vladimir, all of her loyalties are tested. She must choose between her desire to find love and protection in the arms of a man and fulfilling her promise to her family to seek her father.

“The frightening whistles of trains accompanied by loud gunfire fill the night with fear,” Frank describes one of Klara’s nightmares. This is his method of helping both the reader and Klara’s character digest some of the disturbing imagery she has witnessed on her journey.

Aboard trains, Klara glimpses gun battles, protests, beatings, sexual abuse, and constant anti-Semitism. At one point she even ducks under an older woman’s skirt to hide from Cossacks intent on raping female passengers. Frank spares his readers few details. Klara endures the putrid stench of the woman’s soiled undergarments and is terribly shaken afterward.

Although historical notes listing significant dates and quoting secondary sources briefly interrupt the fictional narrative, Frank provides a convincing background for his characters and methodically weaves their stories together.

“She spots a face she knows coming toward her in the aisle,” Frank writes when Klara bumps into Dmitri Abramovich Dudin, a Red Cross worker she thought was dead. “He stops. Her eyes lock with his. Neither flinch… They stare at each other. To each, the other looks different. He’s lost weight. A pale, thin face. Sunken cheeks. Eyes deep in sockets. His nose is red.”

Short declarative descriptions effectively portray the horror of the revolution as a collective tragic experience. The country traversed is vast, and wherever Klara travels, she encounters new refugees. Their eyes reflect endless train tracks, and their scarred faces recount desperate escapes in an unforgiving struggle to survive.

“Some men play chess on makeshift benches. Some women breast-feed their infants. Some read torn, yellowing newspapers,” Frank writes, describing the crowded scene at the Harbin Hebrew Association, where Jewish refugees have assembled, hoping to flee Russia. He then records their disparate voices:

“Got to get out of here before winter.”

“I’m staying put, there’s money to be made here.”

“Maybe you’ve heard about my cousin in Brooklyn? He’s from Kiev.”

“No. I won’t trade you rubles for cigarettes.”

The chatter and gossip of these refugees reveals the extent to which the revolution has stirred Russian society. Capitalists are preying on the dispossessed, and the breakdown of Russia’s financial system has created new currencies. Meanwhile, families never give up hope that they will be reunited with loved ones when they reach the new world.

Klara’s voice is conflicted. “Go ahead,” she thinks, urging herself to tell her brother about Vladimir, the gentile Red Cross worker with whom she has fallen in love. “Tell him. He’s your brother. He just wants to take care of you. But you’ll have to tell Mischa that Vladimir’s a non-Jew. God. There’ll be hell to pay.”

Russia is indeed becoming a new country. Spies and informants lurk in every town Klara passes through, and as the Russian people grasp for a fresh understanding of their rapidly changing culture, old sentiments and traditions prove confusing and often prevent them from accepting the communist ideal.

Readers will appreciate Frank’s extensive knowledge of Russian mannerisms and geographic landmarks. In a wonderfully crafted scene, refugees stare out their windows as the train passes by the majestic lake Baikal. “The sparkling water calms the passengers and their hunger,” Frank writes, suggesting a brief moment of nationalist-inspired unity that transcends the deep divisions in the country.

The scope of Klara’s Journey is epic. Not surprisingly, Klara becomes sidetracked on her long trek across Russia, but her character evolves dramatically over the course of the novel. Frank provides a fast-paced adventure packed with vivid scenes and well-researched history. He reveals the desperation behind Jewish emigration from Russia in the wake of World War I, and treats Russia’s descent into communism on a human level, exploring how a coercive ideology contradicted the Russian character and soul.

Jeffrey F. Barken frequently reports on Israel news topics and Jewish-interest literature. A graduate of Cornell University and the University of Baltimore’s MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing, he is the author of “This Year in Jerusalem,” a collection of stories based on his experiences living on a kibbutz in Southern Israel from 2009-2010.


Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Blogs North American Studios Look to Israel for Next Animation Hit

    North American Studios Look to Israel for Next Animation Hit

    JNS.org – In 2008, Yoram Honig was a producer and director living in Jerusalem, fresh off his first international hit, when the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA) came to him with a challenge: build a film industry from scratch in Israel’s capital. “When we started here, was nothing in Jerusalem,” he said during an interview in his office in the Talbiya neighborhood. Now, the Jerusalem Film and Television Fund, which Honig heads as an arm of the JDA, pumps 9 million shekels […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Sports Olympic Gold Medalist Gabby Douglas to Wear Leotard With Hebrew Letters in National Competition

    Olympic Gold Medalist Gabby Douglas to Wear Leotard With Hebrew Letters in National Competition

    Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas will wear a leotard bearing Hebrew lettering when she competes at the P&G Gymnastics Championships over the weekend. Douglas’ Swarovski-outlined outfit will feature the Hebrew word “Elohim,” meaning God, on its left sleeve. The Hebrew detailing honors the athlete’s “rich heritage of faith,” according to apparel manufacturer GK Elite, which produced the leotard and released a preview of it on Wednesday. The company said Douglas’ sister, Joyelle “Joy” Douglas, created the Hebrew design. The outcome of the P&G Championships will help […]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports British World Heavyweight Champion Should Be Banned From Boxing for Sounding Like Hitler, Says Ukrainian Competitor

    British World Heavyweight Champion Should Be Banned From Boxing for Sounding Like Hitler, Says Ukrainian Competitor

    Britain’s world heavyweight champion, Taylor Fury, should be banned from boxing for making Nazi-like comments, a former world champion from the Ukraine said on Thursday, ahead of their upcoming match. “I was in shock at his statements about women, the gay community, and when he got to the Jewish people, he sounded like Hitler,” Wladimir Klitschko told British media, according to Reuters. “We cannot have a champion like that. Either he needs to be shut up or shut down in the ring, or […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Rabbi Shows Cooking Skills and Humor on Chopped

    Rabbi Shows Cooking Skills and Humor on Chopped

    Rabbi Hanoch Hecht just made television history; but, unfortunately, he couldn’t have his rugelach and eat it too. Hecht became the first rabbi to compete on the hit show “Chopped,” where contestants are forced to use four random ingredients in their recipes, and have 20-30 minutes to create an appetizer, a main course and a dessert. A contestant is eliminated after each round. Hecht, 32, said that while the dishes and utensils were new, the kitchen was not kosher, so he couldn’t taste […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Music Orthodox Entertainer Stars in Pepsi Max Commercial as New Face of Company’s Israel Campaign (VIDEO)

    Orthodox Entertainer Stars in Pepsi Max Commercial as New Face of Company’s Israel Campaign (VIDEO)

    Orthodox singer and entertainer Lipa Schmeltzer is starring in a new Pepsi Max commercial for the company’s campaign in Israel. The commercial begins with a bunch of Jewish men eating at a restaurant, when Schmeltzer walks in and tries to decide what to order. An employee at the obviously Israeli eatery offers him a variety of foods, but the entertainer in the end decides on a bottle of Pepsi. Everyone in the restaurant then joins him, drinking Pepsi Max and dancing to […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Book Reviews Jewish Author’s ‘Messy’ Draft Transforms Into Rock Star Novel on Amazon

    Jewish Author’s ‘Messy’ Draft Transforms Into Rock Star Novel on Amazon

    JNS.org – “Writing is a messy process,” says author Elizabeth Poliner. “People who don’t write fiction would be surprised to see what early drafts could look like.” But readers wouldn’t know “what a mess it was for the longest time,” as the Jewish author puts it, when reading Poliner’s critically acclaimed latest book, As Close to Us as Breathing. The volume garnered Amazon’s “Best Book” designation in March 2016 as well as rave reviews from the New York Times,W Magazine, NPR, […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Sundance Tour Features Short Film About Elderly Jewish Woman’s Decision to Eat Bacon for First Time

    Sundance Tour Features Short Film About Elderly Jewish Woman’s Decision to Eat Bacon for First Time

    The Sundance Film Festival Short Film Tour, which started on Friday in New York City, features a mini-documentary about an elderly Jewish woman whose journey away from Orthodoxy leads her to taste forbidden food for the first time in her life. In Canadian director Sol Friedman’s Bacon & God’s Wrath, Razie Brownstone talks about ending her lifelong observance of keeping kosher as her 90th birthday approaches. The recently declared atheist said the discovery of the search engine Google spurred a lapse in her Jewish faith and made her decide to […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Food Chabad Rabbi From New York Competes on Food Network’s ‘Chopped’ Cooking Competition

    Chabad Rabbi From New York Competes on Food Network’s ‘Chopped’ Cooking Competition

    A Chabad rabbi from Rhinebeck, NY, will face off a priest, a pastor and a nun-in-training in an upcoming episode of the Food Network‘s reality show, “Chopped,” Lubavitch.com reported. Rabbi Hanoch Hecht – who teaches up-and-coming chefs about the intricacies of kosher dietary laws at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) — was nominated for the show by a professional chef, and went through a rigorous interview process at the Food Network’s studios in Chelsea, NY. Months later, he was informed he had been accepted as a contestant in the popular TV cooking competition. “I thought […]

    Read more →