Review of The Patriots
(Spiegel & Grau, 2017)
Early in Sana Krasikov’s impressive, often dazzling first novel The Patriots, Brooklyn-born Florence Fein is joined by her parents as she’s about to board a ship. The year is 1934.
Danes, Poles, Germans, stocky in their winter overcoats and rubber boots. With their American children in tow, they were returning to their homelands in search of work. Observing them trudge aboard, Florence suddenly felt she was watching an old Ellis Island film reel flipped by the Depression into reverse: masses of immigrants returning to the ship, being herded backward through that great human warehouse as Lady Liberty waved them goodbye.
That is essentially what The Patriots is—an American immigrant story, except the immigrant is leaving rather than entering the US. Flora—as Florence is known—had, “grown up on the elm-lined streets of Flatbush, Brooklyn, debated The Federalist Papers at Erasmus Hall High, studied mathematics among the first emancipated coeds at Brooklyn College.”
But Flora wants out. She had “committed herself to this credo… Breaking your family’s heart was the price you paid for rescuing your own,” writes Krasikov—whose story collection One More Year earned raves and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award.
Globe-hopping, decades-spanning, and generation-clashing, The Patriots calls to mind Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. Brooklyn, Cleveland, Washington, and Moscow—from the 1930s – 2008—are just some of the places we visit.
Early on, we follow Flora, who, “even at sixteen…had nursed visions of a great destiny for herself,” and who “would have done anything…gone anywhere to find a life of meaning and consequence.” After a brief affair with an affable Russian, Flora decides to leave Brooklyn for the Soviet Union—much to her parents’ chagrin.
“You think I’m such a dummy that I don’t know what kind of hoodwinked world my own father left,” her father bellows. He suggests Flora has been duped by Communists, but ideology is not quite what’s motivating Flora. Flora herself seems a bit hazy on her motives, though they seem to be some dangerous combination of ambition, wanderlust, and plain old lust.
Flora is not away from Brooklyn long before the brutal and absurd realities of the Soviet state—personal and political—become clear. And yet, Flora falls in love with such abandon that this brash, outspoken women pliantly agrees when her lover says, “Everything’s all jumbled in your head right now because you don’t have your man with you.”
Flora also has a son, Yulik, only to watch him become a victim of state totalitarian bureaucracy, as well as her own inner chaos. (The Patriots, by and large, shifts back and forth from Flora’s manic third-person narrative and Yulik’s more informal, introspective, first person.)
Growing up, Julian—as Yulik is known—faces “persistent hunger” and “heartless punishments.” And yet, “by grace or luck” Julian “wound up in a home where we children were treated with civility, even affection.” By 2008, Julian is working for “Big Oil,” unfettered commerce having replaced Communism as the ideology of choice in 21st-century Russia.
“My own expertise,” Julian notes, “is in icebreakers—those thousand tons megalosauruses that chew through glaciers so that you and I can get our tanks pumped.” This is fitting employment for a man driven to unearth his family’s deep secrets.
Julian has become obsessed with obtaining his “parents’ dossiers” from their days living under Stalin. Julian’s quest is often sidetracked, however, by his own wayward son, Lenny, now thirty-four years old. When Julian recommends his son go back to school, Lenny snaps: “You and Ma still think a framed degree is the answer to everything. It’s your fucking immigrant delusion.”
And so, three generations of yearning wanderers are trapped in an emotional limbo between the United States and Russia, weighed down by—yet also dangerously ignorant—of history. When Lenny says, “nothing here is straightforward,” Krasikov wants us to think not only about Russia, but also family life, over the decades.
For all of its undeniable virtuosity, a cameo by Franklin Roosevelt and Henry Morgenthau illuminates a significant flaw in The Patriots: the narrative of this 500-plus page tome definitely flags from time to time. Krasikov’s prose can also veer from lyrical to clunky, though this might partly be a result of The Patriots’ many shifting locales and viewpoints. Either way, Krasikov has an undeniably gifted eye for detail. (A Soviet functionary, at one point, arches a conspicuously “groomed” eyebrow.)
For Flora—for many in the Soviet Union—the 1934 assassination of Bolshevik leader Sergey Kirov and subsequent rise to power of Joseph Stalin has grave consequences. A fierce, new paranoia creeps into everyday life.
Ultimately, one of Krasikov’s prominent themes is the degree to which vast powerful forces - those historical megalosauruses, if you will—trickle down into our intimate lives. As one character late in this often funny, ultimately powerful book tells Julian: “(W)e’re all leashed pretty tightly to the era we’re living through. To the tyranny of our time. Even me. Even you.”
At one point in The Patriots, Julian is reflecting so intently on what he’s learned about his parents, that he reimagines specific moments from when he was just six years old—his research having turned him, if only briefly, into something of a historical fiction writer. That’s probably the closest he—and perhaps any of us—can come to breaking up the thick ice that separates us from the past.