When I was eleven, my favorite books were a series of Christian historical romances by Judith Pella and Michael Phillips. Set in Russia during the late 19th century, the main character is a shy, pious peasant girl named Anna who traveled to St. Petersburg from her little country village to work as a kitchen maid in the home of a wealthy nobleman. In the first book, The Crown and the Crucible, Anna gets lost and accidentally ends up in her employer’s private gardens, where she meets Katrina, the daughter of the family, who decides that the unworldly peasant girl would make a great ladies’ maid. Anna is a familiar anachronism in historical romances, the poor girl who just loves books and reading more than anything, and is able to breach massive class barriers thanks to her literacy, moral certitude, and unassuming manner. When she meets Katrina’s brother, Sergei, an aspiring novelist, the two fall rapidly in love. The turbulent political backdrop of Russia during the reign of Alexander II serves as excellent fodder for the plot, when Sergei’s novel upsets the imperial censors, who drive his noble father out of the tsar’s favor and get Sergei exiled to Siberia. Not to worry, though: he escapes, and is reunited with Anna at her father’s peasant hovel, where they live happily for many years, raising a large family in well-educated destitution.
Pre-revolutionary Russian history was my obsession in the fifth and sixth grades. If the internet had been what it is now in 1994, the Romanov dynasty would have been my fandom. It all started when my fifth grade teacher mentioned the mystery surrounding the death of Anastasia Romanov and the women who claimed to be her in the decades after the first World War. My big Christmas present that year was James Blair Lovell’s book about Anna Anderson, the most famous claimant to Anastasia Romanov’s identity, which I pored over like a religious tome. Other books on Russian rulers, such as Peter the Great, Nicholas and Alexandra, and Alexander II and the Modernization of Russia, formed the backbone of my reading list that year. Every day I wore a locket that held a picture of Nicholas II on one side, and Anastasia on the other.
(The picture in my locket. Not show: the author razoring it out of her history textbook.)
Needless to say, for most of middle school, I found it almost impossible to have a conversation with…anyone. Not just people my age: anyone. There is no easy way to explain to another human being that the reason you’re crying in a corner at lunchtime is because Anastasia Romanov might have died alone in the snow at the age of 18, but nobody knows for sure.
In retrospect, I believe that the writer I’ve turned out to be was born between the ages of 11 and 13. Sophisticated reading comprehension, combined with a lack of any kind of critical snobbery, meant that I was equally capable of becoming emotionally invested in The Babysitter’s Club series as in a book about the martyrs of the Protestant Reformation. The adults in my life were not very literate; they, rather vaguely, thought it was a good thing that I was reading so much, but unlike in every other area of my life, they never attempted to impose any rules or guidelines on the books I consumed. Books were also a scarce commodity in my childhood. It wasn’t easy to get to the library, and my parents couldn’t afford to buy them for me in the quantities that I required them, so I was bound to at least attempt to be interested in any book that came my way.
There used to be no meaningful difference in the way I processed fiction and non-fiction, so long as a book contained some kind of narrative about the lives, deeds, and dramas of human beings. Every well-written, compelling story felt equally “true” to me. I certainly felt like I had a better excuse to get worked up about the fact that Anastasia Romanov’s family had really been murdered by Bolsheviks—I couldn’t understand why everyone wasn’t worked up about that—but I don’t think I was any less miserable when Katrina Fedorcenko died in childbirth at the end of Judith Pella’s Travail and Triumph. There was only one criteria for whether or not a story took root in my soul, and that was whether or not the author was capable of making me feel the characters’ pain. Pain was my great point of connection. I was in a great deal of it, and I didn’t really understand why. The fantastic thing about books was that they provided context for suffering, and promised rewards in the form of deliverance and resolution. Which isn’t to say that I demanded happy endings of my stories: I read way too much Russian literature to think I had any right to expect that. But the author was like God, an all-seeing witness to the inner struggle and turmoil of their subject’s lives, and the fact that the character’s suffering was being seen was enough catharsis for me.
“Writer” wasn’t ever actually on the list of things that I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t want to be the eye—I wanted to be the person the eye was trained on. I wanted to be a character in a story that people would read in a hundred years’ time. I wanted to be Anastasia Romanov: a saint, a martyr, someone whose life would stir people to passionate weeping in a school lunchroom long after I was dead. It isn’t that I wanted to die alone in the snow; for a strictly metaphorical value of “snow”, I sort of assumed that was going to happen anyway. I just wanted people to know what was happening to me, and to care.
I wanted this, because I knew there was very little chance I would ever be the peasant maid Anna, whose virtue and literary sensibility insured that, even after the heartbreak of seeing her true love exiled to Siberia, she would find happiness and peace in her peasant hovel, surrounded by people who loved her. She could always count on a benevolent author to validate her years of brave and patient suffering. Real life offered me no such guarantee.
I think this is why, as both a reader and a writer, I have pretty much zero interest in stories with pretensions to “gritty realism”—novels that glory in nihilism and despair, novels that choose to leave their characters (and their readers) dead in the snow with a bullet in their heads, because “that’s life, man.” Yes, that is life: but as far as I’m concerned, the point of telling stories is that we’re here to tell them and read them and remember the people who aren’t. The fact that human existence is full of suffering is news to precisely no one. Tragic stories are short-sighted and narrow-minded when they forget that the act of telling them is a victory.