The Accidental Anarchist, By Bryna Kranzler: Book Review

Jewish refugees Liverpool 1882
Jewish refugees from Russian pogrom, Liverpool, England 1882


Bryna Kranzler’s The Accidental Anarchist traces the adventures and misadventures of Jacob Marateck, the author’s grandfather. The book is based on Jacob’s diaries, which were written from memory. The diaries document Jacob’s personal history and are part of the Marateck family legacy.

Jacob Marateck was witness to dramatic events in Russian history. He fought in the Russo-Japanese War, conspired with revolutionaries and was exiled to Siberia. Eventually, he followed the only path that would insure his survival: He emigrated.

Jacob’s saga begins when he is conscripted into the Russian army. The naive youth stumbles through a series of calamities from which he manages, improbably, to escape. He brings along with him on his travels three abiding tools that get him through the adventures: a clever mind, an abiding sense of humor, and an unshakable faith. That faith, in my view, more than anything else, becomes the spine of this story.

When Jacob sets off for the army, his family, and just about everyone who knows him, gather and bid him goodbye. Ahead of him lies the unknown. Behind, an insular society, one that has provided family, friends and moral compass. What will the world, what will the Russian army, do to Jacob? His father offers advice that will stay with Jacob and protect him from the mischief of outside influences. “Be a Jew”, his father instructs. We see throughout the book that it is this injunction, and Jacob’s adherence to it, that determine the course of his life and his character.

His father’s words ring in Jacob’s ears as he marches to war. They provide strength as he struggles to resist temptations . “Be a Jew”. Conforming to his mandate means conforming to the laws of the Torah, even when hunger and carnal desire strike.

Of course, being a Jew in imperial Russia is not an identity Jacob can easily deny. Antisemitism pervades every aspect of Russian society. It is inescapable in the marketplace, the courts and the army.

Although Jacob’s journey takes him to war, prison and exile, his tone is never grim. The book has an almost picaresque quality. Even more than Bryna Kranzler’s art, I believe it is Jacob’s humor that makes his story enjoyable.

The essential truth of Jacob’s recollections is born out by other material from the same era. Tolstoy’s Resurrection, for example, describes an irrational court system, a decadent military and a brutal process of exile. Resurrection is not simply a novel. It was Tolstoy’s attempt to expose flaws in Russian society and government. The book has been faulted for being a screed rather than a work of fiction.

Byrna Kranzler has done a skillful job editing and organizing her grandfather’s diaries. After his death, associates and family recognized the value of his unique record. They preserved the diaries and transcribed them. Kranzler explains that she is third in the line of this legacy project. She edited and consolidated the material further. Consolidation involved taking liberty with details to create an entertaining story. The result is a blend of history, memoir and novel.

Overall, The Accidental Anarchist may be taken as a genuine reflection of the diarist’s experience. I would have enjoyed reading the originals, in translation, but most readers would probably prefer this more organized rendition. The Accidental Anarchist is a well-written and worthwhile book.

A. G. Moore     August, 2017

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Art Alone Enduring, By Mary Steenson: Book Review

 

 

Park Bridge by Zora Steenson

“Park Bridge” by Zora Steenson, used with permission of Mary Steenson.  Copyright protected.

 

 

Art Alone Enduring is a poignant story of two sisters, Hughberta and Zora Steenson, who were social pioneers and artists. Zora established herself as a freelance artist when most women did not work outside of the home. Hughberta joined the Marine Corp during WWII and became one of the first women ever admitted into that branch of the service. Both women created brilliant art that is just today beginning to gain well-deserved recognition. Art Alone Enduring offers vivid color reproductions of this work. The pictures alone are worth the price of the book.

Mary H. Steenson, author of Art Alone Enduring, is related to the Steenson sisters by marriage. Her husband, Robert, was their nephew and helped to oversee their care near the end of their lives. The journey traveled by these sisters is one that takes readers through Depression-era hardship, WWII and the post-war boom in the United States.

This book is loosely based on the lives of Zora and Hughberta, but it is also a work of imagination. It is impossible to separate the known details from the fictional embellishments. No matter. Ms. Steenson has created a viable vehicle for introducing two remarkable artists to the public. These sisters began their lives in the Midwest and ended, many years later, in a Tacoma, Washington nursing home.

Hughberta was the younger sister, filled with sibling rivalry. Zora was the protective older sister. After drifting apart and finding their separate destinies, the sisters reunited in midlife and stayed together until Zora was removed to nursing care. They did not remain apart for long.  A determined and resourceful Hughberta found her way into the nursing home and stayed with Zora for the rest of her days.

In 1998, Hughberta died after a bout with the flu. Zora lived on for another three years. Today, the sisters are buried together near their parents’ graves, in Minnesota.

I recommend strongly that readers seek out the art of Hughberta and Zora. Their work is arresting and unforgettable. A website maintained by Mary Steenson, maryhsteenson.com, displays some of their pieces.

Art Alone Enduring is a lovely book, a delight to hold and peruse. It is the sort of book that reminds us why sometimes reading the physical copy of a book is an experience that cannot be matched by consuming the material through an electronic device.

 

A. G. Moore  August 2017

 

To Climb a Mountain: Growing up in the Canadian West Adventure Amid Turmoil: Book Review

By Jean Forbes-King

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“To Climb a Mountain: Growing Up in the Canadian West Adventure Amid Turmoil” is a memorable book. It brings to life circumstances most of us will never personally experience, such as wrangling with a grizzly bear and panning for gold. The book follows the form of a classic Bildungsroman (novel of personal development), though “To Climb a Mountain” is not technically a novel. It falls somewhere between fact and fiction. The story is based on conversations and tapes provided by the subject, Bill Forbes-King, and is fleshed out in a spirited telling by his wife, Jean. In the book, young Bill Forbes-King confronts and survives challenges that mold his character. He struggles, stumbles and, ultimately, prevails.

“To Climb A Mountain” is not a perfect book. There are structural issues that disrupt the narrative flow. This is not a fatal flaw. The virtues of the book outweigh its defects. As I finished reading “To Climb a Mountain”, I thought of an artist I had recently discovered, Clementine Hunter.

Neither Bill Forbes-King nor Clementine Hunter had the benefit of an advanced education. Hunter worked as a manual laborer. Through her days of physical labor she observed her environment. These observations she immortalized in paintings that lacked technical expertise but that revealed, brilliantly, the world in which she lived. From her pictures, we see her world.

Bill Forbes-King, also, gives an unsophisticated, unfiltered view of his world. Though his wife wrote this book, it is his young voice – adventurous, naive and discovering – that comes through.

Forbes-King began life with few advantages. He never knew his father, a WWI vet who died before his son was born. Forbes-King and his mother leave their native England and migrate to Canada. After years of struggling to support her son, the mother dies while the boy is still a teenager. At this point, the orphan is put into the foster care system. Here he has a varied experience, not all of it positive.

At 17, with WWII raging, Bill Forbes-King decides to join the battle. He signs up for service and is shipped out to Europe. For a good part of the book, readers are given eyewitness accounts of this young soldier at war. His war accounts are some of the most dramatic in the narrative.

Upon his return home, at war’s end, Forbes-King transitions to civilian life with nothing but his wits and survival skills to support him. He takes a series of positions, mostly in the Canadian West, where he meets a host of colorful characters.

While “To Climb a Mountain” could use some reorganization and editing, it is a distinctive and original book. Ms. Forbes-King is a good writer. She offers readers a credible and entertaining account of her husband’s life. I enjoyed this book and recommend it to readers.

 

A. G. Moore July 6, 2017