I fully admit this is one of those books that I splurged on the hardback edition because the cover is so beautiful. More than that, I’m also endlessly fascinated by Slavic and Russian folklore and history, and the tale of Baba Yaga. This is “The Witch and the Tsar” by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore, a very prescient historical fantasy by an ethnic Russian American author and lawyer.
I really enjoyed this one, mostly how the author was able to deftly weave the stories of the old pagan religion of Russia in with myths of witches and magic and the encroachment of the Orthodox Christian Church. This is told as the real story of Yaga, a half-goddess, half-mortal vedma, or witch, who prefers to think of herself as a healer who communes with animals, and her connection with Anastasia, the tsarina and wife of the tsar who would become Ivan the Terrible. But Ivan the Terrible is manipulated not by court politics but by forces older than any of the new Russia can possibly understand.
Even though this was fiction, I found it endlessly fascinating how even in the 1500s, Russia’s history was dark, dystopian and dominated by bloodthirsty autocrats, carrying echoes of today. I liked how the author described Yaga’s magic; she described the old gods in a unique, non-tropey way, as if they are only real if you believe in them, and the belief and the memory of the people is fading. I liked how this was a woman-led fantasy in which the women were the ones in the story who really had the power and influence behind the scenes, while wrestling with their own demons.
I did not like how some of the narrative felt like a forced sequential rush of events instead of being present and immersed in Yaga’s world. It felt a bit like the author was stampeding to get from one phase of her life to the next, but there were some wonderful descriptions of gods and a conflicted love for Russia and the old ways that kept me riveted till the end.
Jonas shouldered his way through the press of the crowd. It was February 20, 1939 in Manhattan, and the chill pricked his bones. His fur-lined leather jacket felt flimsy and weak. But that was suitable armor for someone who felt weak, inside. Jonas Weber, a member of the German American Bund youth corps, Brooklyn chapter, fingered the unassuming ball of clay in his pocket that he had stolen from Rabbi Feldberg a month earlier.
The marquee of Madison Square Garden was lit with the words “Pro American Rally.” There were people everywhere; bright-eyed youth waiting to get in, and anti-Nazi demonstrators yelling and carrying signs outside the gates. Police officers stood in a line in front of the stadium. Chaos thrummed in Jonas’s veins.
As Jonas moved through the crowd, he joined the flood of brown shirts inside the arena. His breath was stolen in the swarm of people. It was George Washington’s birthday today, and his portrait was displayed in radiant grandiosity. Jonas wanted to be here when Fritz Kuhn gave his speech. He had never met Fritz Kuhn. But Fritz Kuhn would find his ball of clay useful.
The German American Bund had a plan for America, and America would pay attention after this rally. America was right to not enter the war effort. They were right to exercise caution. Even at 20 years old, Jonas knew this. Germany would win in the end. This ball of clay would help them.
His neck prickled with shame as he thought of what he had to do to get it. He had befriended Rabbi Feldberg. He had given the old man information about the German American Bund movement, names of prominent leaders. He made the rabbi believe Jonas was a sympathizer, a turncoat. Jonas recalled their long conversations, the old man’s fears, his stories of his childhood in Germany. He listened and drank warm green tea and ate Chinese food with him. Then one night he figured out where Rabbi Feldberg kept the golem and he stole it.
But Jonas did not join the crowd of 20,000 finding their seats as music played in the background, Wagner, he noted. He was not here to watch. Instead, he pushed his way to the front of the crowd, near the stage, and a set of guards that flanked the gates to the backstage area. Momentarily, he saw the giant portrait of George Washington surrounded by stripes and swastikas, and his head swam with awe and something else – a sense that he couldn’t quite place, and did not want to name.
“Boy,” one of the guards said, his blonde hair shaved in the German style. “This is a private area. Go find your seat.”
Jonas flashed his Bund membership card and fought a cascade of nerves. “I’m here to see Fritz Kuhn. I have information that could help the war effort.”
The guards laughed, their mocking sounds dissipating in the crowd noise. When they settled down, the same guard cleared his throat.
“This is a private area,” the guard said. “VIPs only.”
“Please,” Jonas persisted, growing desperate now. “It’s a matter of life or death.”
He saw his youth leader behind the line of guards, and waved at the man. “Tom!” The forty-year-old dentist met his young protege’s eyes.
“He’s fine,” Tom said. “Let him through.”
The guards grumbled, but did as they were told. Once behind the gate, Tom put his hand on Jonas’s shoulder, in a paternal way.
“What’s this now, Jonas?”
“I have information. Critical information. I need to see Fritz Kuhn right away.”
“You can’t tell me about it?”
“No,” Jonas insisted. “I need to see Mr. Kuhn.”
“Very well then,” Tom said. “I can’t say I don’t appreciate your enthusiasm. Your timing, as ever, isn’t perfect, though.”
Despite his hesitation, Tom led Jonas through the crowded backstage area and down a corridor of rooms. On other days these were changing rooms for circus and theater production crews. Jonas led him to a room marked “5A,” and said, “Go on,” and Jonas pushed open the door. Fritz Kuhn stood at a table, smoking a cigarette with a group of other men, studying paperwork piled on the table. For a moment, Jonas was frozen with fear. Maybe this really was terrible timing. He had not quite thought this through.
Fritz Kuhn looked up, his clean-shaven, craggy face looking like that of a war admiral. “Boy, I don’t know how you got in here, but I’m not signing autographs now.”
Tom guided him forward. “He has information that could help the war effort, Fritz.”
The door closed behind them. At that moment Jonas felt the cloying pressure of his 20 years of age as the heady smell of tobacco filled his nostrils. Jonas choked down his nerves and placed the ball of clay on the table.
Fritz Kuhn laughed, and the others followed suit. “You come to me with clay, boy?”
“I stole it from a rabbi,” Jonas said. “A mystic. This is not just ordinary clay. It is a golem. A terrifying creature that could become super-human soldiers of a powerful German army.”
Kuhn’s eyes narrowed into slits. He shook his head. “The Germans are intrigued by mysticism and the supernatural,” he said. “So don’t take my laughter the wrong way. What the Germans want above all else is power, and they don’t care how they get it. Show me this Jew’s tricks. I am interested.”
Jonas started whispering the words that the rabbi had taught him, the words from the book that came in the same drawer that secreted the clay. He whispered the spell over and over again. Nothing happened. His blood started to boil. The men were growing impatient. The clay just sat on the table. Ordinary, brown, moist clay. Useless clay.
Kuhn blew smoke into the stale air. “I am sorry, boy. I am afraid to tell you that the Jews are also tricksters. It would seem you have been duped. I am sorry to hear it, too, because it was a promising story. Send him away now, please. I must prepare for my speech.”
Jonas took his ball of clay and put it back in his pocket, his eyes smarting. Tom put his hand on his back. In the corridor with the door closed, he spoke to him gently. “Don’t talk to Jews again without our approval. Will we see you next week?”
“Yes,” Jonas said, his voice barely a whisper.
“Good,” Tom said. “Now go. Enjoy the rally and forget this foolishness. We’ll talk about this later.”
But Jonas didn’t go to the rally. He left the crush of the arena and wandered the streets of Manhattan for awhile. He bought a hot dog and a soda at a food truck and ate it in a sloppy hurry, licking fried onions from his fingers. He felt defeated and embarrassed. He wasn’t sure he could show his face at the youth meeting next week. They would just laugh at him like Kuhn did.
The hour grew later and later. He didn’t want to go back home to his one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn with the neighbors who had loud sex every night and the neighbors below who rehearsed with a garage band. He didn’t have a girlfriend. His parents were dead, killed in a car wreck when he was 18. His sister had stopped talking to him after he joined the Bund. Now he didn’t know if he could go back to the Bund. He was alone.
He stopped at a street corner, the light from a street lamp blinding his eyes. The pulse of the city throbbed around him. New York was never quiet, not even at this hour. He knew he had to worry about thieves at this time of night, but he could take them. He was not worried. He was young and strong, even if he was foolish.
Jonas took the ball of clay out of his pocket, and stared at it in his hands. He began to shape it and form it in his fingers, the wet substance oily on his skin. He said the words of the spell over and over, and he started to cry. He really was a fool.
Then a bright flash blinded him as nausea roiled in his belly. He thought the street lamp had gone out. Instead, when he came to, a giant man, perhaps eight feet tall, stood in front of him. The man had a mustache and glasses and looked vaguely like Rabbi Feldberg. His body was fiercely unnatural, lumps of clay dripping with water and streaked with street dust.
Jonas stepped backward and almost fell over. “You!” he hollered at the creature. He looked around him through his tears. New York continued around them, as if they didn’t even notice the behemoth in the darkness. “Why didn’t you show yourself at the Garden? You were in the lion’s den! You could have destroyed all those Nazis!”
“Oh, boy,” the golem said. “You do not understand, do you? The golem does not seek to destroy. The golem seeks to change hearts and minds. The golem changes hearts and minds one at a time, in the dark, when the golem can take their pain away.”
“You can’t change my mind,” Jonas said bitterly.
Then he froze as something seemed to enter his mind and tear through the membrane of his memories. The streets of Manhattan melted away. He was 18 again. He was in the backseat of his parents’ 1937 Packard 120. They were speeding on the highway outside Tulsa, Oklahoma. His parents were arguing. It was dark.
“I don’t want to see this,” Jonas whispered.
“But you must.”
It had been a drunk driver. Jonas’s dad ran a red light. Farms passed by them in the shroud of the night. The drunk driver hit them head on. Metal fragments flew everywhere. The crush of screams and pain and blood roared in Jonas’s mind. The ambulance, later. Jonas was thinking about his chemistry final before the crash. Wishing his parents would just be like all the other parents and get along with each other.
Now they were dead, and he was alone, and it was all his fault.
Jonas was angry. Angry at everything. He wanted to punch the flashing red lights, the twisted metal of the Packard, the world. He was angry, and he was alone, and it was all his fault.
Then a voice started whispering in his ear. “It’s not your fault.”
It was his fault.
“It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.”
The anger fell away, and was replaced by bitterness. The bitterness met emptiness. The emptiness felt hollow and dead inside. Then it overwhelmed him. The darkness stole his breath from his throat. He doubled over in pain, refusing to cry again, refusing to be weak.
“It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.”
He was six, then, listening to his parents shout, holding his stuffed tiger in his arms in his bed, his sister weeping next to him. He heard a crash of a beer bottle.
“It’s not your fault.”
Then he felt arms around him, squeezing him, holding him tight, crushing him with dripping clay. The embrace spread warmth through the hollowness, and he succumbed to it. He still did not cry, but he accepted the Golem. He didn’t even know what he was doing. But he felt different. His head felt clearer, his thoughts sharper.
The street shuddered back into focus, the noise of the city pulsing around him, horns blaring, people talking in the distance.
On the ground he saw a streak of clay and blood. He tried to pick it off the pavement, gather it into a ball again, desperate to claim it for his own again. But it started raining. Cold, sloppy droplets poured down his skin and washed the clay into the gutter. He hissed in frustration.
But then Jonas stopped, shaken by the change in him. He realized he wasn’t going to go to the youth meeting next week. Not because he was embarrassed.