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Katherine (Katya) Vogt is now an old woman living in Winnipeg, but the story of how she and her family came to Canada begins in Russia in 1910, on a wealthy Mennonite estate. Here they lived in a world bounded by the prosperity of their landlords and by the poverty and disgruntlement of the Russian workers who toil on the estate. But in the wake of the First World War, the tensions engulfing the country begin to intrude on the community, leading to an unspeakable act of violence. In the aftermath of that violence, and in the difficult years that follow, Katya tries to come to terms with the terrible events that befell her and her family. In lucid, spellbinding prose, Birdsell vividly evokes time and place, and the unease that existed in a county on the brink of revolutionary change. The Russländer is a powerful and moving story of ordinary people who lived through extraordinary times.
What time is it getting to be? ” her mother called from the blanket where she lay, a straw hat covering her face, and baby Daniel cradled at her side. “Why don’t you children see if you can tell what time it is from nature,” her father said. “Take a look around. ” “The sun? ” Gerhard said, disappointed that their father’s challenge would be such an easy one. “The water,” her father said, and indicated Ox Lake, out beyond the parsnips and rushes, where the water lilies grew. Sara jumped up and down to be able to see farther out.
She was drowsy-eyed, and her mouth hung open as though she didn’t possess the energy to close it. “We only saw snow,” her sister concluded in a tone that suggested she couldn’t understand why that should be. The girl cousins wore identical wine-red velveteen dresses with scalloped linen collars which had become palettes stained with Christmas food and drink. They only saw snow, Lydia whispered to Greta, who rolled her eyes, and they broke into giggling. They only saw snow, Katya said, and laughed, too, while the sister cousins made pickle faces.
Sudermann. May I ask then, what about you? Do you plan to take up a gun and fight for the fatherland if need be? ” David Sudermann’s eyes followed his children running among the trees. “No, I do not. But I’m not going to cloak my decision in the high-minded language of religion. I’ll call it what it is. Cowardliness. And what’s more – you may as well know this, Peter,” he said. “If need be, I’ll use what influence my brothers have in order to keep from being sent to work on a Red Cross train or ship. As far away from disease and danger as possible.
The ride grew less unpredictable, the bumps even and quick, making her bones chatter. Her father’s sharp knees jutted out from the bench, his hands clenching the reins and resting on his thighs, his knuckles white, and she knew he was still angry. They would need to apologize to the fruit-picker woman for taking her baby, he’d said. “Na, girls, what’s to be done with you? ” He ended the silence which had come between them since he’d turned the horses from the road for open country. Katya knew he didn’t expect an answer.
He demanded that his chair and the gramophone be brought to the vine arbour, where a man could breathe. And so, late into the night, they were treated to the music of Caruso. A sobbing aria of Pagliacci, and then “Nessun Dorma,” played again and again, Enrico Caruso’s voice floating out and across the meadow where the great bustards had begun to flock; the birds not sleeping either, Katya’s father had said. A red plush sofa scattered with small cushions covered in the same fabric as the window drapery now stood where Abram’s work table had been.