More and more I enjoy seeing the herds go home at sunset or a little before—I amuse myself studying the faces of the cows and there are so many different expressions on them: the intellectual cow, the woman’s rights (or rather the cow’s rights) cow, the peasant cow, the grand duchess cow, the lesser nobility and the cows who would be charwoman if they were humans. And most of them remind me of people I have met. —Eleanor Pray, 1909
Last week, I received a letter from a reader named Birgitta Ingemanson. She’d read a piece of mine from last month in which I mentioned the doldrums that one can sail into when one is between books. These inter-book periods are restless times, and the transition from one world to another can be a challenge. If the book you finished was good, you mourn its loss. Conversely, a bad book can make you gun-shy. What if the next one’s no good, either? Birgitta wrote, “The thought came to me to send you the enclosed book, with the following simple suggestion when the in-between time strikes again: ‘Try this.’ ” The book was one she had edited: Eleanor L. Pray’s Letters from Vladivostok, 1894–1930.
Pray, a native New Englander, had moved to Siberia as a newlywed, but contrary to what one might expect of a sheltered lady of her era, she loved the challenges of her new home. And in her letters, as Ingemanson writes, she “transformed the good times and bad of those years into an exuberant testimonial of interest, appreciation, and survival.” Some letters home are long, others no more than a paragraph. Subjects can be small, personal, domestic. She details meals and marvels at the wonders of smoked fish, blini, black bread. We learn about the decoration of her home, the small rituals of her happy marriage—“I am turning the upstairs sitting-room into a little conservatory.” Hers is the life of an expat bourgeoise: there are many servants; sometimes there is a naive obliviousness that seems remarkable to those of us with the luxury of looking back at world events. But she is not narrow-minded or unkind, as seen in a letter from 1922, when Pray worked for the Red Cross:
Maria Pastukhova, also eighteen, is a refugee from Chita—a girl who has finished the high school, and is quite alone here. She gets three yen for three days’ work weekly which, with a small ration, enables her to live among decent people. We do not really need her but one is sorry for a young girl so stranded, who can find no employment, and it is wiser to let her earn a little money than to assist her financially. Far too many girls of her age take to the streets and, when driven by hunger, as is now so often the case, who can blame?
The Russia she loves at the beginning of her marriage is by the end of the book a lost world, one whose customs and heritage she mourns. Then there are personal accounts of world-scale history: the turn of a new century, unrest, revolution. It is, in short, a life chronicled and preserved. It is a perfect book for dipping in and out and, yes, a good transitional volume. If you are between books, if you are feeling harried or distractable or discontented, I will do as another before me did, and suggest: try this.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.