Part history lesson, part novel, “Klara’s Journey” by Ben Frank chronicles a young Jewish girl’s travels from her home in Odessa, Russia to Winnipeg, Manitoba in the midst of the Russian Civil War. It is a compelling story of an intelligent and brave young woman’s fight for survival amidst hardship and dangerous conditions.
Frank, a Pittsburgh native, based the character of Klara on his aunt, who lived in Greenfield, and traveled a similar journey from Russia to Canada.
Klara Rasputnis is 17 and the oldest child of five. Her father, Gershon, is a cantor who seeks a better life for his family. He leaves them, but after much time passes without word, Klara’s mother sends her to find him. Klara’s chaperones fail to show up at the train station, so she makes an impulsive decision to jump on the train alone, much to the consternation of her younger brother, Mischa, who had accompanied her to the station.
Riding thousands of miles on the Trans-Siberian railroad alone, Klara embarks upon a life-changing adventure.
Each chapter begins with historical information about the political situation in Russia during the timeframe in which Klara was traveling, beginning in 1917. The book would have been more effective if the history were incorporated into the storyline, as the chapter headers interrupted the flow of the story. However, the synopses did serve to provide context.
There is very little that is soft about Klara. She swears; she steals; she’s opinionated. But her brash personality becomes her best weapon on her journey as she encounters danger around every corner. Facing would-be rapists and kidnappers, rampant anti-Semitism, violence, lack of money and food, and volatile soldiers, Klara is forced to use both her wits and her sharp tongue to survive.
With limited resources, Klara gets on and off the train in different Siberian towns. At times, she is unable to travel for months because of severe weather.
Klara catches up with her brother, Mischa, during her travels. Mischa has become a spy with the Red Army. His on-and-off presence throughout her journey is initially a source of security, but then becomes a danger to her, particularly after he switches loyalties.
More than historical fiction, though, Klara’s is a star-crossed love story. Along the way, she meets and falls in love with Vladimir, a non-Jewish member of the Red Cross. Their relationship delays her on her quest to find her father, but it also gives her the courage to continue her arduous journey when fate intervenes to separate the couple.
Klara journeys throughout Russia, China, Japan, Seattle, Vancouver, and finally, Winnipeg, where she experiences an unfulfilling reunion with the father who, for all intents and purposes, abandoned his family.
The author, a travel writer who has written several Jewish travel guides, effectively captures the political upheaval in Russia at that time while shedding light on why so many Jews fled Russia during this time period.
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)