Reading Group Guide for The Little Russian by Susan Sherman

Reading group guide for The Little Russian by Susan Sherman

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  1. Set against the sweep of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Russian history in all its brutality, begin your discussion of this novel by considering whether you found it ultimately uplifting in its depiction of humanity.
  2. Look again at the prologue and talk about the way much of the novel’s action is foreshadowed in these few brief pages. Analyze the novel’s themes that you find woven into the narrative here. Consider the reaction of the bystanders to the sudden horrific death of the shoe peddler, the reaction of his wife and children and comment on why this is important to the novel as a whole.
  3. In direct contrast to the grim poverty of the prologue, Berta Lorkis is introduced to the reader in all her Moscow finery. What were your first impressions of her? How far removed did you think she was from the previous scene? Consider the statement, “Berta was born in Little Russia…She was a Great Russian, as anyone could see by her fierce accomplishments, tasteful dress and overall refinement.” (p.19) Did you get the feeling that she was trying too hard to make her case here, that she protested a little too much, or were you willing to take her at face value?
  4. How surprised were you to know that Berta was from the squalid town of Mosny, that her parents were alive and well and running the grocer’s shop? To what extent did you empathize with her on her return home to this “intolerable hell.”? (p.25) Did you get the impression that the things she learned in Moscow were not going to help her very much in Mosny?
  5. “If Berta closed her eyes, she could almost believe she was back in Mosny upstairs over the grocery…It brought back the old feelings of her adolescence, of familiarity and alienation, of inclusion and entrapment.” Talk about this statement from later in the book and consider its meaning. Find instances of the conflict of feelings that arise in Berta around her childhood home, her family, her upbringing – those mixed feelings of “nostalgia and disgust.” (p.27)
  6. While market day in Mosny may appear to be just a part of everyday life for the Jews living there, in fact it is extremely socially and politically significant. Discuss the “tenuous connection between town and country, Jew and gentile, a slender branch built on commerce.” (p.37). Why are the Jews holding their breath? Consider the reasons why it is so easy to break this fragile peace.
  7. At the center of every aspect of this historically important novel is the persecution of the Jews at the hands of the peasants, the Revolutionaries who stir up the peasants, Cossack armies, countless Imperial laws and decrees, the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks. In short, every group or interest attempting to seize control of Russia has a common enemy – the Jews. Examine the historical reasons for this as presented in the novel.
  8. In the light of the last question talk about the role of religion – and religious differences – throughout the novel. How does it manifest itself among the peasants with their love of Russian Orthodoxy? Discuss the importance of Hershel’s observation that in preparing to defend their village against a pogrom “today there were no Bundists or Zionists in Smotrich, only frightened men desperate to protect their families.” (p.71) Is religion more divisive than unifying in the narrative?
  9. While Berta is attracted to Hershel Olshonsky’s cultural refinement and wealth what is it about him that draws her admiration? What do you think Hershel sees in Berta? Does she display many positive attributes in her early days in Mosny? What is Berta looking for in Hershel? What does it say about her that she gives herself to him, body and soul, when he tells her about the pogrom in his childhood village?
  10. Hershel wins Mameh over with his quick-witted storytelling and gossip from his business travels. Talk about stories, news and information as a valuable currency throughout the novel.
  11. The women of Mosny consider Berta’s impending marriage to Hershel as the epitome of success: “She was going to … live in a big house in Cherkast, and ride around in a practically new droshky. She would have store-bought dresses and jewelry and go to parties where an orchestra played and exotic food was served at midnight.” (p.80) How far does Berta agree with their assessment? How close would this be to her dream of regaining her Moscow lifestyle? To what extent might her later downfall be attributed to such a mindset? In contrast, how has Berta’s sister, Lhaye, managed to stay so grounded?
  12. Talk about the bargain that Hershel and Berta have made: “In exchange for her lovely life Hershel had the freedom to come and go without question.” (p.111) How naïve did you feel that Berta was about Hershel’s “good works in shtetlekh”? Was she choosing to turn a blind eye for the sake of the good life? What is your opinion of Berta at this stage of the novel?
  13. “Their relationship was one of his many contradictions. He needed certitude, a quiet routine, possession, and belonging, but he also loved a challenge. And Berta was all of that.” ( p.126) In the light of this statement discuss how Hershel is able to live these two very different lives: in the dangerous, often deadly, world of the shtetlekh and in the trivial world of his materialistic wife. Could he live in one without the other? Analyze Hershel’s reasons for his political involvements.
  14. Contrast and compare Pavel Ossipovich Lepeshkin to Hershel in the beginning chapters of the book leading up to their fateful work together. While they are both members of the Bund, the Jewish Workers’ League, discuss their childhoods, their backgrounds and their reasons for involvement. Ultimately do their reasons and their life story matter when they end up together in the same place on a cold night and their lives become linked?
  15. With the introduction of Pavel, it becomes evident that Hershel’s involvement in arming the shtetlekh is happening at a national level. Discuss other ways in which the author moves the action from Berta and Hershel’s personal story to show what is happening on a national and world stage.
  16. “Even cynical Morris seemed to be affected by the rhythms of the prayers, the power of the words, and the community of the ancient tribe.” (p.134) Discuss Pavel Lepeshkin as someone without a sense of religion, community or family, as an outsider and what this means to him in terms of his work with the shtetlekh. Find ways in which the Zionists with their love of God and his laws and the Bund members with their hope for social justice and dignity are similar.
  17. In the dramatic moment of Hershel’s departure for America do you believe that Berta has any real understanding of the situation? How fair is she to say “Her beautiful house…her family, her friends…could be taken away. Hershel had gambled with them…and had lost.” (p.150) How do you feel about her words, her decision to stay in Russia, to let Hershel leave alone? Is her decision based on a desire to do what’s best for her children or are there other, less impressive, reasons?
  18. Look at the constant barrage of anti-semitism that Berta deals with from the disparaging aside “I have never been in a Jewish home before. I didn’t think thy wee so nice and clean” (p.114) to bewildering untruths: “The Jews killed him. They tell the Germans where to bomb.” (p.192) Why does Berta never say anything to defend the Jews? Discuss her feelings of confusion about the matter. Does she allow herself to be put down? Consider her statement: “She was Berta Alshonsky, temporarily reduced in circumstances.” (p.221)
  19. Throughout the novel we have understood the importance of family but nowhere is it stronger than in the emotional scene in which Berta moves in with her sister who declares, “You have family that will take care of you. You are not alone.” (p.215) Look at the theme of family as it weaves through the narrative – in the lives of other characters, in Berta’s relationship with Hershel, and in her desperate attempt to keep her own children safe. Remember her father’s statement when she returned to Mosny: “Is it really that bad being home? You are wanted here. This is where you belong.” (p.34)
  20. Talk about Lhaye, the ways in which she and Berta are similar, the ways in which they are completely different, even opposites. If Lhaye is a pragmatist, is Berta an idealist? A dreamer? Why has Lhaye never despised Berta or seemed jealous of her? Why does she not take pleasure in her sister’s downturn in fortune?
  21. “Russia was festering.” (p.222) Examine how this one short sentence seems to sum up everything that is happening in Russia, capturing the doom, desolation, and desperation felt across the country. Look at ways in which the author depicts this epic sweep of misery by highlighting personal yet universal details.
  22. After the loss of her furniture, then her home and her possessions Berta begins to change. Chart these changes, the different ways she deals with her ever-worsening situation, and the different sides of her character that reveal themselves as she moves from passive to active in managing her fate. Is there one defining moment for her that makes her realize, “She was alone with two children in a country at war. …. It was all up to her now, no one else, just her.”(p.205)
  23. “No one stopped to offer her a ride…Everyone knew you were on your own. No one expected kindnesses.” Taking this quote as a spring board discuss instances where Berta too falls into this trap, where she puts herself ahead of others in order to survive, in order to provide for her children. Find places where you wanted Berta to behave differently – maybe give the man who had pawned his shirt something to warm himself – but knew that it would have rung false in the narrative. Are there any moments of kindness that stand out against the relentless stark reality? Talk about these too.
  24. Consider Berta’s treatment at the hands of friends from Alix, to Lenya, to Yuveliv? Did you expect better of them? Would that have been realistic?
  25. What does it say about Berta that she handles shocking deprivation and humiliation, that she constantly risks death to survive and is confronted daily with harrowing scenes of butchery and loss – yet the death of her daughter knocks the will to live out of her? “She was no longer a part of the world.” (p.273) Consider Sherman’s beautifully moving treatment of Sura’s last moments and her skilled, often poetic, handling of disturbing material throughout the narrative.
  26. Discuss Pavel’s role in helping Berta and her family after his return from the camps. Why do you think he is doing this? Is it out of a sense of duty, guilt, a search for redemption? Something else? What do you think his opinion is of Hershel? Contrast the Pavel we knew before and after his part in the botched smuggling raid. Will he always be a “sour, exhausted, disappointed man?” Why or why not? (p.295)
  27. What were your feelings about Hershel during the long years after his departure? Did your opinions about him change? Did you feel that he had abandoned his family, that he should have stayed in Russia and taken his chances? Did you sense his presence in the narrative still?
  28. Consider the novel’s ending. How far do you agree with/understand Hershel’s self-loathing? Talk about Hershel and Berta’s shared grief as a means of rediscovering each other after such a long separation. What do you think the future holds for them – can Hershel ever understand what Berta went though, the extreme change in character that she was forced to adopt?
  29. Finally, discuss the character of Berta taking into account the four stages of her life: “The Lady From Moscow,” “The Wheat Merchant’s Wife,” “The House Jew” and “The Border Stealer.” How well did each role define her? Would you describe her in another way? Do you think that in Rice Lake, Wisconsin she will finally regain all the luxuries she enjoyed as the woman from Moscow? Despite everything – or perhaps, because of everything – she has endured do you think such a life is still her dream?

Further reading: White Guard – Mikhail Bulgakov, Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter – Peter Manseau, Cold Mountain – Charles Frazier, The Revolutionist – Robert Littell, Gone With the Wind – Margaret Mitchell, And Quiet Flows the Don – Mikhail Aleksandrovich Sholokhov, The Siege and The Betrayal – Helen Dunmore, The Jewel of St. Petersburg – Kate Furnivall.

Download this reading guide as a PDF