Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Why I Love Tiny History by Susan Sherman

Today we are pleased to welcome Susan Sherman to Historical Tapestry.

It’s a good thing I love history, because I write historical fiction. I’m not talking about the big events, although I write about those too, or at least how they affect my characters. No, what I love to write about is tiny history--intimate history, the little details that flesh out the lives of my characters; that define them and that lend color and authenticity to their story. Details such as how they cleaned their teeth or blacked a stove or made tea in a samovar are all important in setting the stage. I want to know about boot scrapers and straight-in-front corsets, what herbs to use if you want to cure pneumonia, (the dried white pulp of elderberry branches thrown on hot embers), and the little history of porcelain inhalers.

What I particularly like about research is how one detail leads to another and how eventually the larger picture is revealed by following these tiny threads. Since The Little Russian opens on a market day in a Jewish townlet on the Dnieper River, I researched Jewish market days called yarids. I learned how they were laid out, where the carts and stands were located: produce, dairy and fish in the middle, livestock on the perimeter. I learned that Jewish housewives in the Ukraine wore checkered shawls, while the muzhiki (peasants) wore blouses embroidered by their mothers or wives. The carts were pulled by horses, which meant manure, clouds of flies and the smell of horse sweat in the summer. Although, the muzhiki and Jews mistrusted each other, each used bits and pieces of the other’s language. The babble was in Yiddish, surzhyk and a mixture of the two, as Jew and peasant bargained to get the best price.

Since the market was always located in the town square, I researched them as well. I learned that the best Jewish businesses were located there, while the lesser ones were on the muddy side streets. The prominent citizens lived above their shops and sold only new items. Those lower on the social ladder lived above or in the back of their ramshackle shops and sold used items. From just these few facts life in the shtetls begins to take shape.

As a writer I’m always looking for tiny history in the larger events, the myriad of small dramas that lead to cataclysmic changes. For example, on February 17th 1917 in Petrograd, at the height of World War I, an argument breaks out in the gun carriage shop at the Putilov Steelworks resulting in the dismissal of several workers. The shop committee demands reinstatement along with better wages and hours. When management refuses the whole shop walks out. The next day other shops in the factory join in and soon there is a lockout. At the time, few people understood the consequences of this strike. There were hundreds of strikes going on in Petrograd that winter and this was just another one. But it wasn’t. It was Putilov, a massive factory that supplied armaments for the war. This was at a time when soldiers went into battle without guns or bullets.

Supplies were scarce at the front and in the cities. Women would typically line up in the middle of the night for potatoes, bread and kerosene. These were workers’ wives, the wives of tradesmen and young kitchen maids, who worked in the grand houses. Sometimes they would line up early in the evening and stand out all night in the wintry cold where the temperature would drop to forty below. Prices were sky high. A small bag of potatoes which cost 15 kopecks before the war, cost 1 ruble 20 kopecks, while butter, if you could get it, was also 1 ruble 20 kopecks. Boots cost 50 to 100 rubles. The price of wood was soaring. Even in the fashionable apartments the temperature rarely rose above freezing.

Let’s give one of these women a name. Let’s call her Olya Goloftaev. She lives in the Vyborg quarter, in a couple of rooms with her husband and three children. Her husband worked at Putilov until the lockout. It’s now February 23rd and she has been standing in line all night at the Filippov Bakery on Bolshoi Prospeckt. She has come to buy bread, because her children are hungry. She has waited all night in the cold, stamping her feet to keep them from going numb. When she finally gets to the front of the line she is told Khleba Nyet, no bread. At other shops on the street there are similar cries of Kerosina Nyet, no kerosene, Mooka Nyet, no flour, no candles, no sugar and no milk. Standing there in the snow, her hands and feet on the verge of frost bite, her children condemned to another day of hunger, Olya Goloftaev has had enough. She can’t live like this any longer. She won’t live like this. In desperation she cries out: Khle-e-eba!...bread. Khle-e-eba! Soon other women in the line join in. Khle-e-eba! Kle-e-eba! It’s Women Worker’s Day and just then a demonstration of female factory workers surges by. When they hear the women at the Filippov Bakery shouting for bread they join in… Khle-e-eba! Kle-e-eba! But this isn’t enough for Olya Goloftaev. In a rage she shouts out: Doloi voiny! Doloi tsarskoi monarkhii! Down with the war! Down with the Czarist Monarchy! The cry is picked up here and there. More women join in. Soon their men follow. Doloi voiny! Doloi tsarskoi monarkhii! Shouts are heard up and down Bolshoi Prospeckt. Doloi tsarskoi monarkhii! Down with the Czarist Monarchy! Russia teeters on the precipice. The revolution is born.


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