Saturday, December 22, 2012

Guest post from Susan Sherman: Grandma Was a War Hero

Please help me welcome Susan Sherman to the blog.  Her debut novel, The Little Russian, published in paperback by Counterpoint this month ($15.95, 352pp), is based on her grandmother's life.  She has contributed a wonderful essay about how she uncovered details through personal research and family stories and transformed them into compelling fiction.

A genealogy buff myself, I'm always interested in hearing about novels based on family history, and I'd be putting The Little Russian on the TBR even if I didn't count early 20th-century Ukrainian Jews among my ancestors. Like many others, I know little about what their lives were like in the old country.  As Susan writes below, "We are a nation of immigrants," which is very true.  Novels such as this can help us get a better picture of what they achieved.

I hope you'll enjoy her post.  Visit her website at for more information.


Grandma Was a War Hero
Susan Sherman

For years I wanted to write my grandmother’s story. It was a natural for a novel: a young Jewish woman and her two children caught in Ukraine at the beginning of World War I, her desperate struggle to stay alive through the Russian Revolution and the civil war that followed, and her eventual escape across Ukraine to Poland. Yes, it was daunting to write about Russia; to become intimate with Ukraine during that period; to know what if felt like to live through those seminal events, especially as a Jew living in the Pale. I thought that if I were ever going to write this story, I’d better get on with it. My father and his one remaining brother were getting on. Time was running out. Since my grandmother didn’t leave a diary or letters or any other record, only they had the story or so I thought.

Like families everywhere, mine has certain traditions that are faithfully followed. They aren’t religious or philosophical in nature, but are small events, designed to bring people together. For example, every spring we meet at my house for a family reunion. Over Jewish comfort food, we get caught up, share photos and argue about politics. About eight years ago, at one of these reunions, I asked for details about grandma’s story. What I got was a barrage of conflicting accounts. Everyone had their own version, and everyone thought their version was the real one. My father believed that my grandmother went to live with distant relatives in Moscow at an early age. They were wealthy industrialists, who raised her as one of their own, educated her and taught her to be a lady. In my uncle’s version, she went to work in one of their factories, never received an education, and ended up barely able to read and write.

I decided to use my father’s version, mainly because I thought it would make a better story, and because it’s the version my grandmother would have chosen. My grandmother, like my protagonist Berta Alshonsky, was concerned with appearances. She would’ve been disappointed if I had portrayed her as an illiterate factory worker in a sugar refinery. According to her, she was educated. She read Goethe, Turgenev and Tolstoy. She could speak French, although I never heard her speak a word of it. The truth was my grandmother was a storyteller herself. She never let the truth get in the way of a good story, which is probably why there are so many versions of her life floating around my family today.

My main concern in writing the novel was telling a good story, not worrying about facts. In that way I guess I’m like my grandmother. I spent the next three years researching life in Russia and Ukraine. Eventually, I got to a place where I felt more at home in 19th century Cherkast then in Los Angeles. It was true that some of the elements of my story came directly from my research, but mostly my reading only served to confirm my grandmother’s story. There actually were thousands of Jewish peddlers on the road during the Russian Civil War. War communism was real. When she feared for her life because she was a peddler, engaged in private enterprise, and could be shot for it--well, all that happened. There were so many details of my grandmother’s life that I thought were exaggerated or invented, so many elements that seemed exotic or unreal, that when I did the research and found out they were true, it was a real awakening.

What I came away with, after all my research, was that my grandmother was an amazing woman. She had to have been in order to survive those times. I only knew her as the carefully coiffed blue hair bobbeh wearing her mink stole even on the hottest days. She was grandma, cooking all day for Passover dinners, dispensing hard candies to her grandchildren and admonishing us we went out without a sweater. I never knew she spent years scrambling for food and medicine, roaming the Ukrainian countryside trading beads for pig bristles and flax, so she could trade them in town for food. Each day she went out on the road despite the various factions who threatened the Jews: the Green Army of the Ukrainian nationalists, the Black Army of the Anarchists and the various hetman and their bands. She protected her children against the White Army and the Reds, while somehow managing to keep them alive despite the hunger, cold, and pogroms. In other words, my bobbeh was a war hero.

Traveling here and there to literary festivals, libraries, bookstores and book groups, I meet people all the time with family histories of their own. From every generation, from all over the globe come stories of men and women struggling to make a better life for succeeding generations. We are a nation of immigrants. We all come from somewhere else…and we all have heroes in our family.


  1. Awesome post. I want to meet Susan's grandmother. She sounds amazing. I was not familiar with this book, but I sure want to read it now!

    1. I agree - I'm glad you liked her post!

  2. Besides being a nation of immigrants, we are a nation descended from grandmothers of awesome strength (my story is about mine also). You'd never know from watching films or television how interesting and powerful older women are.

  3. This is so cool! I just started reading The Little Russian on the train this morning actually. I didn't realize that it was based on a true story!

    1. Fun coincidence! I'll look forward to your review if you write it up.

  4. I just picked this up from the library today! I am really looking forward to reading it!