Elizabeth Gilbert and Me

Elizabeth GilbertI may regret stepping into the mire of Elizabeth Gilbert’s most recent debacle over the delayed (or indefinitely suspended) release of her latest book, “The Snow Forest,” that was slated for the spring of 2024. My understanding is that the book is a family saga set in the 1930’s in Siberia, a far cry from the Western border of modern-day Russia where hell is being poured upon the Ukrainian people. And yet, because of indiscriminate “review bombs,” Ms. Gilbert has felt impelled to pull her book amidst the controversy.

But what, exactly, is the controversy? Apparently, it is because the book is set in Russia. Period. As though a book about a Siberian family will somehow elevate the West’s view of Putin’s government. Not likely. This must be the same crowd that has rejected the playing of Tchaikovsky, the performing of the Nutcracker Ballet, the reading of Tolstoy, or the purchasing of certain nesting dolls.

I grieve for the nation of Ukraine. My background, also Eastern European (my parents emigrated from Latvia), has caused me worry about the plight of the Baltics too. When this war started, much talk surrounded the escalation of Putin’s gluttony and his desire to take over Russia’s neighbors. A travesty. I am grateful for the strength and determination of the Ukrainians and the support from the West that has slowed Putin’s aggression.

But condemning all things Russian is nothing new. I can point to similar behaviors around the world and in recent history, some of it in our own country. I am reminded of the sweeping distrust and hatred of the Germans during and after the World Wars, or the loathing of Irish immigrants who swamped the United States to escape the potato famine, or the creation of Japanese internment camps despite their U.S. citizenship, or the Iranian fatwas against perceived enemies, or the wholesale genocide of tribes and people groups based on heritage or religion, or the widespread and ongoing racism against people of color, including those of Hispanic origin at our southern borders. All of this has been carried out and encouraged by regimes who held (and hold) the power to do so, and by the propaganda created to feed hatred.

The people of these countries, including Russia, are as ordinary as you and me. We are all suffering at the hands of powerful rulers, despots, and even democratically elected presidents. Those in power believe they have the authority to control the lives of everyone else. And now, this power is being wielded by savvy influencers on social media.

But let me return to the matter of a book and its future.

Unlike Elizabeth Gilbert, a woman of wealth, fame, and a huge fan base who will weather this storm and eventually release her book at a calmer time; I am not so fortunate. I have given several years to the writing and publishing plans of my new book, “Children in the City of Czars.” This is not a happy book, but a fictional account surrounding the plight of urban orphans and whether the power of love can overcome their circumstances. And yes, it takes place in Russia at the turn of the millennium. Will my efforts be thwarted in the months to come? I don’t know. I do want this story to see the light of day and to find readers who can empathize with loss and the tenuousness of hope. My story is ultimately universal but specifically grounded in Russia and Latvia, my adopted daughter’s country of origin and my parents’ home country. I am the product of my parents’ upbringing, and they are the product of their culture. Surely there is still room for story and storytellers.