As a child, my grandparents and great-aunts would periodically bend down and look me in the eye, pull me close, and ask, “Do you know where your parents keep your passport and the emergency money for tickets?”
I did, of course. “How will I know when it’s time to run?” I asked every time we had this conversation, squirming to get away from the smell of herring and onions that was always on their breath.
The question still haunts me. They fled Russia for America because of pogroms and anti-Semitism, and I grew up on their fear and hatred of that country. It’s no accident that when I sat down to write A Bend in the Stars
, set in 1914 Russia, my characters struggled with the same question: How do we know when it’s time to run?
At first glance the Abramov family, my protagonists, live an elegant life. Miri had the chance to go to university and become one of Russia’s first female surgeons. Vanya is a professor challenging Albert Einstein over physics; both men hope to use Russia’s upcoming total eclipse to prove relativity. Their grandmother, Baba, is a matchmaker earning a living that affords everything they might need — so long as they stay within the boundaries for Jews. That’s the key: they’re comfortable so long as they follow the rules. That’s not freedom, Baba argues, as she tries to convince her grandchildren it’s time to escape. She has already survived a pogrom and sees war coming, is sure things are about to get worse. But Russia has changed, her grandchildren say. Has it? Or is it easier for Miri and Vanya to convince themselves it has? Running would mean leaving everything they know behind. The clothes on their backs and money in their pockets are likely all they would be able to take.
Just as the question consumes my characters in Bend
, a quick look in any newspaper shows it still consumes millions of people every single day. I can’t stop asking: What makes a person risk their life, leave everything and everyone behind, for a chance in a new country? Along the extreme edge the answer is gruesome, but what about cases from the middle where a glance in any direction is grey? Life might be bearable because a person has adjusted. A woman might have a job, a roof over her head, food and heat, but the worst kind of evil sneaks into her life slowly. It takes one small freedom at a time without dashing her hope that everything can go back to the way it was before
. When is enough, enough?
What does a person lose before they’re convinced?
Taking that one step further, what are the heart-wrenching details that go into the decision to leave? And once a person decides it’s time to go, what is left behind? Very few ever know if they made the right decision. Regret, the what-if-we-stayed dream will likely haunt them for the rest of their lives, as it haunts Miri and Vanya. There’s no way to know the right choice or the wrong choice — or even to say it was a good choice. Regardless, what is left behind is gone forever: a beloved dog, a favorite spot on a hill, a comfort only found in a first language or a first neighborhood.
, fear for their lives is what makes the Abramovs flee. In the real world, it’s what makes so many others run too. But even when it’s tragically clear that it’s time to go, nothing is easy. It’s not the logistics of finding a way out that are the most difficult, although they’re never simple, it’s the emotion — the final moment that convinces you it’s time. What does a person lose before they’re convinced? And then, what comes next? Any one of a thousand details crowd the way forward and can go wrong, leaving someone stranded at the border or even stranded on the wrong street at the wrong time. And yet my characters, my grandparents, and so many people like them, kept going because of a fierce belief in a better future. As Baba says in Bend
, better days will come. Perhaps not this year, but they will come. This is what so much of the news coverage misses — and this is what I wanted to capture with this book: Hope that persists, somehow, even in the face of unimaginable tragedy.
But there’s something else, too. By the time we read about the ending, a person brave enough to run has already encountered so many twists and turns that it’s almost impossible to trace their way back to the beginning and know where they started. I read a paragraph in Scientific American
in 2014 marking the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s pursuit of the Russian eclipse, a pursuit he thought would prove his theory of relativity. He’d already published the idea, broadly speaking that light is bent by gravity, and the math to calculate by how much. The only piece he was missing was physical proof to convince the world he was right. That proof, a photograph of light bending, could only be taken during a total eclipse. From the photograph he could check his math and overthrow Newton. He had secured funding for the expedition and sent a team towards Kiev to capture the photograph, but Russian troops stopped them at the border, ripped them from the train. And a good thing too, because at the time, Einstein, revered now as the greatest genius to ever live, had the wrong math. He corrected his equations later, but in 1914 he was wrong.
The most famous photos of Einstein depict an older professor living comfortably in Princeton, NJ — but this was the back end of his life. War — chance — kept him from potentially ruining his career. What if his life, or his 1914 expedition, took a different turn? Knowing where Einstein ended makes it hard to follow his twisted line back to that early mistake and yet, I find it to be the most fascinating one of all. If the dominoes had fallen another way, if an officer at the border had let Einstein’s team into Russia instead of barring entry, would Einstein’s theory of relativity have been buried or lost? There’s no way to know and this is why learning about what happens between the beginning and the end is the most important part of any story. The middle is what makes us human and why I focused Bend
on Miri and Vanya. Like so many other immigrants, the middle part of their journey, of every journey, is what gives me hope to look forward to tomorrow. And what’s left behind, those twists and turns that come at us along the way, they will haunt us, but is that such a bad thing?
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is a graduate of Grub Street’s Novel Incubator program. In a former life she was a hedge fund manager and a spin instructor, before moving to the New Hampshire woods to write. She has an MBA from the Harvard Business School and an AB in Literature and Philosophy from Harvard College. A Bend in the Stars
is her first novel.