There is a pretty famous quote by Edmund Burke that says:
“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”
And, for as much weight as this is worth, I agree one hundred percent. Agreeing however, has done nothing to inspire my desire to learn. It’s fairly safe to assume that (with the exception of maybe 3 key historical figures and 1 major war) I am NOT going to win any history prizes anytime soon.
The long and the short of it… I find it difficult to trudge though facts.
I AM A FICTION FAN.
As simple as that. I like new worlds, fascinating characters, and excitement. When I pick up a book I want to get lost in the world inside it. Biographies have NEVER done this for me. So, the big question is…
Why would I (who claims to have a history aversion) agree to review a 253 page biographical history of the Romanov family and the fall of Imperial Russia?
Easy, the Romanov’s fell into my “3 key historical figures” category. Go figure.
I have never had the pleasure of writing a review on a novel that wasn’t based on the imagination, so please bear with me if I stumble around a bit. I’m on rocky ground. But if I was on the outside looking in…these are the things I would want to know.
My biggest concern was onslaught of information. Like I said above, I get bogged down by facts. (Thats code for: they make me yawn…a lot.) I can appreciate facts, and I love the ability to throw them out later in conversation, but if the teacher’s (in this case Candace Fleming’s) intent is to make them stick, I need something for them to stick to. Fleming does a wonderful job of this. Not only does she paint an exquisite picture of Russia in the last 1800’s early 1900’s, but she does so in a way that makes you want to keep reading. Incorporating personal antidotes (for example Anastasia’s love of selfies: “I took one picture while looking in the mirror,” she told her father, “and it was hard, because my hands were shaking.”) while at the same time illustrating political unrest (“In cities all across Russia, police arrested anyone suspected of crimes against the tsar, imprisoning or exiling 38,000 so-called politicals, and executing another 5,000. Outspoken workers lost their jobs, their employers threatened with prison if they attempted to rehire them.”) She also allowed each social class (peasants/urban workers/professionals/clergy/nobility) to throw in their two cents by way of quoted excerpts from their OWN novels. (Page 48: “My Childhood” – Alexei Peshkov’s childhood autobiography. Page 96: “An Occupation for Worker’s Daughters” – Aizenshtein’s described life as a shop girl in 1908. etc.) The combination of all of these seemingly random elements made for an impressive narrative, allowing ME the READER to flow with the history unfolding instead of being buried by it. In short…it didn’t read so much like a history “lesson” but more a story of a family, a country, and what happens when people ignore the obvious. By page 40 I realized what I was reading was not at all what I was expecting.
Another concern I had was chapter length. While I can read for HOURS when curled up with my favorite fiction novel, I find it decidedly more difficult to read non-fiction for long periods of time. There is (bluntly put) just more to take in. If I were to breeze past 100 pages in a hour I’m going to miss the majority of it, nuances that are necessary to the understanding and reason for the history lesson in the first place. Imperial Russia is better in small chunks WHICH Fleming provided. The novel as a whole is split up into 4 major parts. (Before the Storm, Dark Clouds of Gathering, The Storm Breaks, Final Days) but inside each part are chapters (I Dreamed That I Was Loved, What a Disappointment!, The Reign of Rasputin) and each chapter is only a few pages. For instance chapter 11 is titled: “The Reign of Rasputin” and starts on page 146. Chapter 12 which is titled: “It All Comes Tumbling Down” starts on page 156. To make it even better, there are sub-sections in each chapter breaking periods of time, significant events, and sub-plots such as the introduction of new people, down into a few paragraph. (Leapfrogging Ministers, The Point of No Return, Death to the Starets, The News.) These smaller sections helped to relay pertinent information while maintaining the flow of the “bigger picture.” I found that I could take in more, understand more, and even retain more with Flemings way of delivering information.
Need proof? I had a 45 minute conversation with my husband about how WWI started, the number of Russian troops killed within the first 4 days, and how Russian soldiers were limited to 10 bullets a day due to bad planning. I knew NONE of this before I read Fleming’s novel. Even more important…I didn’t care. It was just “information.” I learned (and retained) more about WWI in 5 pages than I could have ever thought possible. And I’m happy that I know it. It’s IMPORTANT that I know it.
I can’t sit here and tell you that this book has drastically altered my reading habits, it hasn’t. But I CAN tell you that I’ve never been more impressed while reading a novel of this nature. The history itself is devastating. The Romanov family, the quick acceptance of murder, rebellion, the hardships endured by the peasants, NONE of it is all that “easy to read” when put into perspective. But it’s relayed with class and backed by a significant amount of research. Both of which I can respect and appreciate on a level I never have before. Fleming managed to write a “readable” yet simultaneously detailed account of the Romanov’s and the decimation of their 300 years autocracy. Not an easy feat.
I highly recommend this novel to history buffs. But even more…I recommend it to those who think history is a hard lesson. Fleming proves otherwise.
Happy reading my fellow Kindle-ites and remember: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana