________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 4 . . . . October 12, 2007


Out of Line: Growing Up Soviet.

Tina Grimberg.
Toronto, ON: Tundra, 2007.
121 pp., hc., $28.99.
ISBN 978-0-88776-803-3.

Subject Headings:
Ukraine - Social conditions - 1945-1991 - Juvenile literature.
Jewish children - Ukraine - Kiev - Biography - Juvenile literature.
Kiev (Ukraine) - Biography - Juvenile literature.

Grades 6-10 / Ages 11-15.

Review by Linda Ludke.

*** ½ /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.


Both of my parents grew up in the same communal apartment building following World War II. The Soviet Union had been through a four-year-long nightmare that swallowed young men, emptied whole neighborhoods, made millions of women widows, and left even more children fatherless. Among them were Babushka Inna, my father and his younger brother, my Uncle Valentine.

Because Kiev had been occupied by the Nazis and had suffered more heavy damage when it was liberated by the Soviet army, few buildings remained standing. Under one roof, many families shared a kitchen, bathrooms and showers. Under such circumstances, bitter enemies and fast friends were often made.”

Tina Grimberg’s reflective essays about 1970s life in Soviet Russia remind me Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulic’s 1992 book, How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed. With keen observations as well as humour, both authors provide insight into what everyday life under Communist rule was really like.

     Writing about her tight-knit family, Grimberg weaves in historical details from the different generations. Her mother and father met and fell in love on Stretskaya Street - the same place where Nazis led Jews to their death at Babi Yor. Her paternal grandmother experienced the late-night knock on the door from Stalin’s secret police. Falsely accused of stealing food, she was put in prison for years.

     Growing up in a world where privacy was nonexistent, Grimberg recalls the cramped , communal apartments with two kitchens for the whole floor, and each family was allocated only one burner on the stove. In such close quarters, there were few secrets. Despite these indignities, the author found comfort in never being lonely. The essay entitled “Old Guard” focuses on the “babushkas” who sat outside on benches and kept watch over the complex.

     The resiliency of the Russian people is explored in many chapters. Even though there were few phones in 1970s Kiev, and mail was likely to be opened by censors, “the hardship was made less so by turning the relay of a message into a social event." Food lines were also a part of life - “It was not uncommon to join a line without knowing what was being sold” - but people found ways to ease the boredom, such as reciting poetry as Grimberg does in “The Pushkin Lover.” Hospital stays were not for the faint of heart. Patients had to bribe nurses to get a clean gown or dressing. Having “connections” meant that “just possibly you could beat the impossible system.”

     All of the events in the book are conveyed through a child’s eye. By turns funny and poignant, Grimberg writes about having a crush on the life-sized statue of a young Lenin in front of Childcare Centre #47, treating her acne with bright green “zelonka” disinfectant, and the shame and embarrassment she feels when her grandmother speaks Yiddish on the bus. The final essay, “I Dream of Florence,” recounts the Grimberg’s harrowing experience leaving the Soviet Union in 1978.

     This elegantly written, first-person account of life behind the Iron Curtain is a welcome addition to public and school library collections.

Highly Recommended.

Linda Ludke is a librarian in London, ON.


To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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