Reading Sarah Klassen’s ‘Russian Daughter’

Sarah Klassen is a writer — a poet and novelist. In my humble and possibly uninformed opinion, it seems to me she may be a poet first — she’s written eight books of poetry and two novels. Her most recent work? The just-launched novel The Russian Daughter. I’ve told you about Sarah Klassen before — or rather, she did, in this 5 Questions interview. But I’ve never told you about The Russian Daughter because it’s brand new. Do poets write novels differently?

Diving into the book, I first meet Sofia, her dark hair “a tantrum”. She is in the midst of a journey to an abandoned village, fraught with memories. What does this village mean to her? Why has she returned, when everyone else has left? And what happened to her back?

Never mind. For now. That was the prologue. The meaning will be revealed as we read on.

Chapter one, we see the village, and meet the villagers. This is a Mennonite street village in South Russia, in the early 1900s. And in it, live Isaac and Amalia, a young attractive couple with a successful farm. But they’re sad, because even though they’ve been married eight years, they have no children — and in a Mennonite street village, having children is what life’s all about. That, and faith. They attend church regularly and Isaac often visits the pastor. Amalia visits Hulda, the midwife. And thus learns there may be a way to have a child after all — adoption. By adopting the offspring of “a girl in trouble”.

Thus, we meet Sofia, born to trouble, adopted into a home and an ethnic identity that is not her own. As the years pass, she feels she is not one of them. She doesn’t fit with the villagers, nor the family that adopted her, though they do try. Some things aren’t black and white. No one is evil here, nor perfectly good — everyone has struggles and foibles.

We meet Amalia’s sister Justina, who can’t seem to stop having babies. And she would dearly like to stop.

We meet Kotya, hired to help shepherd Isaac’s livestock, but forbidden from working the land. Because he’s Russian?

We meet the beautiful intelligent Annegret, daughter of Justina, cousin and peer to Sofia. Can she be trusted?

The book follows their lives and the lives of others in the village as they do the best they can, in the midst of a country on the cusp of revolution.

The years pass and tensions increase. The children grow to be restless teens. The adults grow old and tired. The country breaks out in violence. The villagers believe they’re too insignificant to be noticed. Is it true?

When you look at a picture of Sarah Klassen, who would think she could write such a scene of terrible violence? Scenes of discomfort. Her writing is subtle, elegant, then cunning, then brutal. Other times I find myself admiring how she describes scenes with such subtlety… yet you the reader knows the cutting truth of what’s really happening.

We watch Boris as his blatant admiration for communism grows, challenging his father’s success.┬áHannah, as she becomes lulled by a handsome Russian soldier billeted to their home.┬áSofia, as history repeats itself.

I was angry with Isaac, and how he reacted when he realized Kotya’s secret. I was frustrated by Amalia and Sofia’s inability to connect. And nervous for everyone in the village as times change and their prosperity began to slip from their grasp. I was curious to see how they would handle it. I needed to read more, read faster… yet linger in the painful beauty of the story as it unfolded before my eyes.

There were many times I caught my breath, in the scenes of beauty described. It’s cinematic.

I kept remembering the prologue, in which Sofia is returning to an empty village. But… but… it’s been full and bustling this entire time! How does it become so empty? And why would she return? I had to find out.

Maybe you do too.

(Click this link for an easy path to purchase.)