Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home

The Summer Guest

By Alison Anderson
Harper Perennial, 2017

“I’m very nostalgic for the nineteenth century,” says Katya, a character in this absolutely marvelous novel by Alison Anderson.

What she means is she’s nostalgic for the world of the Russian writer, Anton Chekhov. Charming, brilliant, and a physician as well as a writer, Chekhov darts in and out of the pages of The Summer Guest, candid and yet inaccessible through the barrier of time and language. Not only that. Through these pages he comes across as immensely attractive, and classically unavailable to the women who love him. This story is told in the voices of three women who are obsessed with him. They are Katya, a Russian-born partner with her husband Peter in a failing London publishing firm, Ana, whom they’ve hired to translate a Russian diary Katya and Peter say they have discovered, and the writer of the diary itself. It is by a nineteenth century Russian doctor, Zinaida Mikhailovna Lintvaryov, The Lintvaryov family – real people – rented the guesthouse of their peaceful and prosperous Ukrainian farm to the Chekhov family in the summers of 1888 and 1889. The sisters were unusual for the time. Their widowed mother, recognizing that the girls were not pretty, encouraged them to become economically self-sufficient. One daughter, Natasha, is a teacher. Elena and Zinaida (Zina) are doctors. Zinaida however, is stricken with a brain tumor. This has rendered her blind, though still able to write. Perhaps it is her blindness and vulnerability that draws Anton Pavlovich Chekhov to her. The two chat daily during the summers. Through their talk the reader understands the meaning of literature, the economic imperative that caused Chekhov to write short stories and plays rather than a novel, the loyalty to family that each of them feels.

Through the diary we get a picture of Russia at the end of the nineteenth century, where educated people exchanged ideas that were forward thinking. It’s an idyllic picture of family life and mutual responsibility. It is heartbreaking to think that Russia once had a chance at democracy. This theme is echoed through the book in the voice of Katya, who recalls meeting her husband Peter when he was a student visiting Moscow in the nineteen eighties. He did not understand, she recalls, the constant fear. And Ana, translating the Russian text in 2014, wants to visit the Ukraine and the site of Chekhov’s summer with the Lintevaryovs, but is frightened because of the unrest unfolding in the Crimea.

The contrast between Zinaida’s life as she faces death comforted and surrounded by a loving family, and Ana’s twenty-first century life, untethered by family or romantic attachments, and Katya, trapped by the false promise of capitalism as her business fails during the lingering economic crisis, is thought-provoking. In each case, love is thwarted, too. For Zina, death is on the horizon, for Ana, a divorce has left her rudderless, for Katya a troubled marriage drags her down. For all of them, Chekhov’s words provide a bridge to understanding. In Zina’s case, this is more than metaphor as the writer vividly describes scenes Zina can no longer see.

Fundamentally, this is an elegy for a moment in history, for a slower, more natural world, for the need for connection, for literature as the pathway to understanding our fellow human beings. Ana, the translator, exemplifies the difficulty of trying to get across in another language what someone from another century felt and said. Katya, the publisher, understands the importance of getting across the author’s words, but faces the practical difficulty of doing so. Zinaida, facing death, mourns her short time on earth. Chekhov, amiable, popular, funny, loyal, speaks of the problem of finding time to write. But all try, so that we, despite our moments of suffering alone, have through literacy, the possibility of empathy. As Ana says toward the end of the book, Was not that the beauty of fiction, that it aimed closer at the bitter heart of truth than any biography could, that it could search out the spirit of those who may or may not have lived, and tell their story not as it had unfolded, as a series of objective facts recorded by an indifferent world, but as they had lived it, and above all, felt it?

I really loved this book.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles; The Captured by Scott Zesch

News of the World
By Paulette Jiles
Harper Collins 2016

The Captured
By Scott Zesch
St. Martin’s Press, 2004

“The news of the world” is what Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd reads to ranchers and cowboys gathered in the saloons and public halls of the Texas frontier in 1870.

A former Army officer and retired printer, Kidd now collects coins in a paint can to bring tidings from distant lands to the frontiersmen. His readings are selective, as he realizes that people want “not only information, but tales of the remote, the mysterious, dressed up as hard information.”

And then Kidd is confronted with someone truly mysterious. He is asked to return to her family a ten-year old white girl who had been captured by the Kiowa from her parents’ log cabin some time before. Now she has forgotten her parents, thinks of herself as Native American, and does not want to go home. Kidd accepts this job out of compassion for the girl, and over the 400-mile journey from Wichita Falls to San Antonio he earns her trust as he teaches her English and defends her against predators (human, not animal).

In News of the World, Paulette Jiles gives us a beautifully written elegy on the Texas landscape before it was paved over and developed. She offers us a fascinating story, but also a psychological mystery. How was it that so many of the child captives of the Kiowa, the Comanche and the Apache peoples adapted so fully into their adopted Native American families that they did not want to return?

In her end notes Jiles recommends a book that she used in her research. Published in 2004, Scott Zesch’s book, The Captured, gives us some insights. Zesch is a great nephew of Adolph Korn, who was captured by the Comanche in 1870, eventually returned to his family and never fully adjusted. Zesch considers the psychological condition “the Stockholm Syndrome” in which captives adopt the values of their captors in order to stay alive, later to stay sane. But the most convincing explanation is that for children of frontier settlers, Indian (Zesch uses this term) tribal life was simply more fun. White families at this time in Texas lived in scattered log cabins, with many people crammed into one uncomfortable room. Schools did not exist. Life consisted of one day after the other of work, work, work. And fear of raids on horses and people by the roaming Comanche.

Traumatic as their capture was (because the children taken by the native raiders usually saw their adult relatives and infant siblings killed) the captives were fully adopted into tribal life. The Comanche seemed to have no other purpose in capturing children except to build up the tribe. Boys were trained to be warriors, girls to do work like cleaning the killed buffalo, drying their meat and tanning their hides, and other domestic chores. Compared to white frontier life, though, the freedom experienced by both boys and girls in the Indian camps was considerable. Unlike the unremitting labor they were used to, the children had time to swim and ride horses, to learn to hunt and to fight. For boys this was the fantasy life of the novels they’d never been taught to read. For girls, their adoptive mothers were very loving.

I read The Captured in order to better understand Johanna, the fictional child captive in News of the World. I came to realize the irony of Jiles’ title. The people of the frontier in the 1870s were far from home, trying to tame an unforgiving land. For them, “the news of the world” was the trumpet call of civilization. Globalization was coming to the American West. The news of the world had been hidden from the Native Americans, who were content with the way things were and always had been. The news of the world had enticed settlers to come far from everything they knew. Now they longed for an imagined or concocted world of “civilization” and its comforts. One way or another, the news of the world conquered everything in its path, causing the destruction of a thriving, healthy, thousands-years old way of life. Paulette Jiles’ novel leaves one pondering these thoughts long after the last page is read.