Jane Marlow’s debut novel is a beautifully written twenty-five-year saga of two families—one born of noble heritage and the other bound as serfs to the noble’s household. Set during the mid-1800s in the vast grainfields of Russia, Who Is to Blame? follows the lives of two star-crossed serfs, Elizaveta and Feodor, torn apart by their own families and the Church while simultaneously trapped in the inhumane life of poverty to which they were born.
At the other end of the spectrum, Count Maximov and his family struggle to maintain harmony amidst a tapestry of deception and debauchery woven by the Count’s son. The plot twists further when the Tsar emancipates twenty million serfs from bondage while the rural gentry’s life of privilege and carelessness has taken its final bow and much of Russia’s nobility faces possible financial ruin.
Aficionados of historical fiction will be captivated by the lyrical flow of Marlow’s intertwining stories of love, loss, courage, and pain against her backdrop of social upheaval. The novel’s riddles flow subtly throughout, spurring readers to ponder where the blame actually lies. In the end, we must tap into our own hearts to navigate the depths and quandaries of the author’s perplexing question.
|Publisher:||Greenleaf Book Group, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.98(w) x 9.02(h) x 0.72(d)|
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Who Is to Blame?
A Russian Riddle
By Jane Marlow
River Grove BooksCopyright © 2016 Jane Mahlow
All rights reserved.
What won't feed you without a beating?
THE GIRLS FROZE. Their grain flails halted in mid-air, as their heads cocked toward the approaching jeers and raucous clanging. Elizaveta and her seven girlfriends flung aside their flails and dashed to the slouching wood gate at the road's edge. A mocking throng was clustered around a horse-drawn cart, behind which a tethered, barefoot woman plodded through gummy road mud. The aggrieved crowd had stripped her naked above the waist and sheared off her long hair, leaving short spikes like the head of a thistle. From the roadside, scolding neighbors pounded blackened pots with soup spoons and oven prongs. Others pelted the woman with garbage and blistering insults.
Petrovo's village assembly had found Grusha Prokofieva guilty of illicit sexual penetration and sentenced her with public shaming. While the all-male assembly pointed condemning fingers at the unchaste woman, it sympathized with the wronged husband and ignored the male co-fornicator.
Long before Elizaveta understood the meaning of "unchaste," her parents and the Church had pounded into her that such women threatened the moral sinews of the family and, by extension, the entire village. Of like mind with her neighbors, she usually regarded promiscuous women with self-righteous scorn. But not today. Over the past few months, Elizaveta had discovered the heady throes of her sweetheart's warm body pressing against hers. She had come to understand temptation.
Watching the adulteress dodge apple cores and chicken bones, Elizaveta resolved to grant no favors beyond kissing prior to her wedding vows. She was new to the business of kissing, but her older sister Katya, with her one year of romantic experience, had warned her that all boys wanted more.
Elizaveta wasn't certain of the details of "more" when they involved a man and a woman, but she'd been familiar with the various acts of propagation forlivestock and fowl since before she reached the age of reckoning. And living in a one-room hut, she was privy to the nighttime noises of her parents as well as those of her aunt and uncle. However, she had never actually witnessed "more."
Desires, she vowed, would be bridled until that blessed day she became a bride. But a familiar dread instantly lodged itself in her chest. So many obstacles stood between today and her wedding day. Well, really only one obstacle, she tried to reassure herself. But it was such a huge one. And when it eventually reared its head, she'd have to go toe to toe with her father, Heaven forgive and protect her.
As the taunting mob sought retribution farther down the mucky road, the girls traipsed back to the threshing barn and picked up their wooden flails. In the unvarying cycle of the seasons, few rhythms were more familiar to teenage girls than the timeless thwack against a mound of rye. A flail had been thrust into each girl's hands as soon as she was strong enough to handle the unwieldy device, even before her height matched the handle's length.
The eight budding young women chattered like swallows while they freed the precious grain from its dry husks. Tongues flitted with anticipation over the upcoming winter parties — parties that would include boys.
First, the girls settled on a fair compensation for the once-a-week use of the Widow Shabanova's single-room hut for the parties. They'd give the old hunchback a couple of kopeks plus supply their own firewood. And they'd turn her frostbitten vegetable plants into the dormant garden soil. But knowing Shabanova, they predicted she'd balk, "Too stingy!" If all else failed, the girls would concede to helping the childless widow maneuver the ice-bound road to the Divine Liturgy every Sunday. But that was as far as they'd give in to her excessive demands.
The buzzing conversation shifted to which boys would attend. Zhanna Seleznyova was adamant that runty Demian Osokin be excluded.
The lone dissenting voice belonged to Elizaveta, her chin jutting forward. "We agreed village boys between fifteen and eighteen were welcome."
Zhanna pitched an impatient glance at Elizaveta. "Demian's too puny."
Elizaveta halted her flail. "So you're saying appearance is all that matters? A shiny new kopek is worth more than an old one? Our little wooden church is less holy than a big stone one in Moscow?"
Zhanna huffed a sigh of condescending tolerance. "What I'm saying is, weak boys can't work as hard as strong boys. Therefore, nobody wants to marry one. So why invite him?"
True to her nature, Elizaveta dug in her heels. "Demian's the right age, so it's only fair to invite him."
Zhanna flipped her flail end for end and plunged its handle into a mound of rye. "Have you failed to notice? He has red hair." Zhanna smirked. The irrefutable fact was certain to bring the discussion to a swift conclusion.
Elizaveta acknowledged that people with red hair were, as a rule, untrustworthy. "But Demian has never done anything to make us believe he's devious or dishonest."
Zhanna stood her ground with mulish obstinacy, as did Elizaveta. Work stopped as the other girls joined the heated debate. After many contentious glares and much foot-stomping, the majority concluded no harm would come if red-headed Demian were admitted into their circle.
Humiliated by her defeat, Zhanna went after her adversary's tender spot: She ambushed Elizaveta's dearest friend since childhood. "Based on age, Feodor Zhemchuzhnikov definitely won't be invited."
Elizaveta's breath was knocked from her as solidly as if she'd been ram-rodded by the end of the flail. "What?"
"Zhanna's right," said Marfa, whose family's grain they were threshing. "He's only fourteen."
"As you yourself pointed out, boys have to be at least fifteen." Zhanna's deep dimples dug into her cheeks. "The knife cuts both ways, Elizaveta."
Elizaveta's chest billowed. "Feodor turns fifteen in January, and we'll still have parties then. So he should be invited."
"No. They have to be fifteen before the first party." Zhanna leveled her long-lashed eyes at Elizaveta. "You'll turn fifteen in October, so these will be your first winter parties. You need to understand how we do things."
"You're being unfair!"
"I'm completely fair. Besides, Feodor's even scrawnier than Demian." Zhanna's mouth puckered at the tartness of her own words. "Everybody thinks Feodor is a milksop. Except you and your sister."
Elizaveta's free hand grabbed the rough homespun of her skirt and balled it inside a tight fist of rage. She looked to her older sister for backing, but Katya merely gaped at Zhanna.
Marfa made a tiny offering of support on Feodor's behalf. "Oh, Zhanna, Feodor's just, well, a little boring. And as romantic as a turnip. But that doesn't mean he shouldn't be invited. But only after his birthday." Using the tip of her flail's handle, Marfa drew a line across the dusty planks, staking out an uncrossable boundary.
The girls, with the exception of Zhanna, eventually agreed Feodor could attend the parties after he turned fifteen in January. But not before.
Work resumed, and the discussion switched to which party games should be played and which ones were too risqué. But Elizaveta heard little of it as she pounded the grain in righteous rage.
The gall of that Zhanna! In fact, the gall of all those girls to belittle Feodor. Her Feodor! But then again, none of the girls realized how deeply their comments slashed her heart. Not even Elizaveta's beloved but chicken-hearted sister Katya knew that he was her Feodor, in that extra-special way. Several times, Elizaveta had come within a hair's width of confiding in Katya, but the risk was just too great.
Indeed, anyone with a functional set of eyes could see Feodor was tall and lanky like a scarecrow, with arms so long his fingers dangled to his knees and feet that stretched out farther than his shadow in late afternoon. His limp hair wasn't a desirable brown or black or even a disagreeable red or an uncommon blond. Rather, the nondescript color lay somewhere between mouse and mud puddle.
But Feodor was as caring and loyal a friend as anyone could want. Plus, he worked harder than any of the other village boys. Why did the girls judge him solely on his appearance when there was so much more?
As Elizaveta gave the grain a good trouncing, she slid a disappointed look toward Katya. The two sisters and Feodor had been fast friends since they sucked their cloth pacifiers. But Katya, true to form, had stood as mute as a fence post while Zhanna spouted her cruel words. Elizaveta sighed. Katya always allowed herself to be blown about like chaff in the wind.
Elizaveta rested her flail while she swatted gnats and stretched her shoulders. Her muscles were weary from the endless threshing and knotted with pent-up rage at Zhanna. She wiped the sweaty grime from her forehead onto her sleeve.
Inhaling deeply, she lifted the far tip of her flail to shoulder level once more, then bent forward at the waist to sling the swingle down in an arc to strike the grain heads. The swingle, a flat stick almost as long as her arm, was attached to the end of the wooden handle with a leather thong.
Zhanna, tightening the knot of her kerchief under her chin, rekindled the topic of Prokofieva's public shaming. "About time that slut got what she deserves." She picked up a broom and began gathering the loose straw and chaff, which would be fed to livestock during the coming winter.
"Must you always be so critical?" Elizaveta asked. "Have you never made a mistake?"
"Mistake?" Zhanna flicked her pretty head. "Prokofieva's sin was hardly a mistake."
"Have you nothing but meanness inside you?"
The other girls ceased their threshing. Their wary eyes shifted between Elizaveta and Zhanna.
"You're defending everyone today, aren't you?" Zhanna sneered. "First those little weasels, Demian and Feodor. And now the slut Prokofieva."
Elizaveta could think of nothing that would bring more pleasure than shoving her fist into Zhanna's smug mouth. "You've been a snob since the day your mother pushed you from her body!"
"And you think you know everything! You always have to open your big mouth, don't you?" Zhanna gave a mighty sweep with her broom, hurling a cloud of chaff at Elizaveta.
Elizaveta wiped the powdery grit from her eyes, then bent forward to spit her words. "Ever wonder what people say about you, batting your eyelashes at every boy in the village? Following in Prokofieva's footsteps, perhaps?"
Zhanna's jaw dropped as she groped for a comeback.
"Liza!" Katya hissed. "Leave off, will you?"
Ignoring her sister, Elizaveta angled her head at a cocky slant. "When you and Arkhip slipped away from the circle dances last summer, exactly how much fun did you have?"
"At least I have a boyfriend! All you have is that pathetic little toad Feodor!"
Elizaveta's insides blazed with fury and hurt. She seized the flail's handle with both hands and swung it in a shoulder-high horizontal arc in Zhanna's direction. She meant the action to be merely one of intimidation. But her hands were clammy with emotion, and the handle, after years of being clasped, was as smooth as river stones. The flail slid from her grip, whirled though the air past Zhanna's head, and slammed into the barn wall.
Crack! The dry wood of the swingle fell to the ground in two pieces.
"You could have killed me!" Zhanna screeched.
Elizaveta stomped across the floorboards, snatched up the flail, and shook it at Zhanna. What remained of the swingle flopped like the broken neck of a goose. "Next time, I'll take better aim." She stalked from the barn, her head high, her body rigid with anger.
But hidden behind the growl and the strut was the waver of anxiety. The flail's near miss was the least of Elizaveta's concerns. To her way of thinking, a miss was a miss, whether it was by the width of a hand or the length of a field.
Her real problems waited at home. First, there was the broken swingle. All of the family's possessions — everything from the hut, barn, and sheds to the totality of their contents — were handmade with sweat, labor, and time. Worldly goods were few and precious, and were to be treated accordingly. A fierce tongue-lashing awaited anyone who was careless.
Second, when word of her foolhardy behavior reached her family, her father would be furious. His reprimands were swift and unsympathetic.
Third, Zhanna's parents would pound on the Anafrevs' door this evening, livid that their daughter had almost been beheaded. Elizaveta would have to swallow her pride and ask forgiveness from Zhanna's parents and, worst of all, from Zhanna.
If she didn't apologize, she wouldn't be welcome in the circle of her friends. When winter descended, the girls would huddle in the warmth of the massive clay stove to sew and embroider and gossip. And she'd be excluded. In the village of Petrovo — a cluster of only fifty-one families — being ostracized was unbearable punishment.
The heat of anger flushed her face — anger at that arrogant dimwit and anger at herself. She dropped her head back and beseeched the Blessed Virgin in Heaven to help her rein in her unruly tongue. Why couldn't she follow her grandmama's advice? The wise old woman had told her over and over: "The word is like a sparrow; you can't catch it once it has flown."CHAPTER 2
What creature is this?
It feeds all the people
and gives light in the church.
AS WAS HIS habit, Count Stepan Stepanovich Maximov woke during the soft interlude between night and day. The old manor house creaked under the sun's first rays, as if stretching after a night's slumber.
As he tossed aside the coverlet, his sleep-fogged eyes settled on the bedside pedestal table and its pewter candlesnuffer. Memories of bygone evenings with his wife washed over him: smoke swirling about the pillows, his fingers loosening the tasseled cord, her dressing gown gliding to the floor.
Stepan rose and, in the muted light, gazed across the bedsheets at the graceful curve of his wife's spine. What happens to your soul, he wondered, when the most precious person in your life turns a cold back toward you?
With a heavy tread, he moved to the paned window and nudged it open. In streamed the dewy essence of roses and new-mown hay. The bouquet's ripeness carried tender memories of limbs entwined like grapevines. Of two people lost in a paradise of touching, holding, relishing. Of a time when the simple presence of one another evoked unfathomable bliss.
His forehead slumped against the cool glass. Like a candle snuffed, the easy flow of miraculous days and enchanting nights had ended abruptly with Dmitry.
BENEATH THE PORTE-COCHERE, Stepan dropped a ruble onto the grimy creases of Father Diakonov's outstretched palm. As his jagged fingernails closed over it, the priest muttered his customary "May God be with you." His voice reeked of last night's vodka and his hunger for the silver coin.
The mouth of the wolf and the eye of the priest — never satisfied. Stepan was certain the expression found its consummate example in Diakonov. And yet how gladly he'd slip a hundred-ruble note into the grasping hand if the priest could successfully petition God to give his wife back to him.
Stepan nodded the priest's dismissal and pushed open the mahogany door. The aroma of freshly baked pies rolled over him. Like a bird dog, he trailed the scent across the foyer, through the dining room, and into the kitchen.
Ever wary, he stepped behind his wife and encircled her waist with his arms. "Mmmm. Poppy seed pie. My favorite."
Sophia pivoted to face him. "That is why I had the cook make several."
She's smiling just like old times, he thought. A good omen.
"Father Diakonov blessed the beehives?" she asked.
"Yes, he sprinkled his holy water, the same as every year. The peasants will be lapping up honey, and the church will be ablaze with beeswax candles." Stepan placed his lips close to his wife's ear. "Join me for some pie while it's warm?"
"Just a quick bite. I told the nanny I expect her help sorting through the attic trunks. They are overflowing with clothes the children have outgrown. Shall we eat on the terrace, or would you prefer the dining room?"
"Let's stay right here."
Excerpted from Who Is to Blame? by Jane Marlow. Copyright © 2016 Jane Mahlow. Excerpted by permission of River Grove Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsNote to Reader,
Nobility: Maximov Family,
Peasants (Serfs): Anafrev Family,
Peasants (Serfs): Vorontsov Family,
Locales & Supporting Characters,
Chapter 1: Elizaveta,
Chapter 2: Maximov,
Chapter 3: Elizaveta,
Chapter 4: Elizaveta,
Chapter 5: Maximov,
Chapter 6: Maximov,
Chapter 7: Elizaveta,
Chapter 8: Elizaveta,
Chapter 9: Maximov,
Chapter 10: Elizaveta,
Chapter 11: Elizaveta,
Chapter 12: Elizaveta,
Chapter 13: Elizaveta,
Chapter 14: Elizaveta,
Chapter 15: Maximov,
Chapter 16: Maximov,
Chapter 17: Elizaveta,
Chapter 18: Elizaveta,
Chapter 19: Maximov,
Chapter 20: Maximov,
Chapter 21: Maximov,
Chapter 22: Maximov,
Chapter 23: Maximov,
Chapter 24: Elizaveta,
Chapter 25: Maximov,
Chapter 26: Maximov,
Chapter 27: Maximov,
Chapter 28: Elizaveta,
Chapter 29: Elizaveta,
Chapter 30: Elizaveta,
Chapter 31: Elizaveta,
Chapter 32: Maximov,
Chapter 33: Elizaveta,
Chapter 34: Maximov,
Chapter 35: Maximov,
Chapter 36: Elizaveta,
Chapter 37: Maximov,
Chapter 38: Elizaveta,
Chapter 39: Elizaveta,
Chapter 40: Elizaveta,
Chapter 41: Elizaveta,
Chapter 42: Elizaveta,
Chapter 43: Maximov,
Chapter 44: Maximov,
Chapter 45: Maximov,
Chapter 46: Maximov,
Chapter 47: Elizaveta,
Chapter 48: Elizaveta,
Chapter 49: Elizaveta,
Chapter 50: Maximov,
Chapter 51: Elizaveta,
Chapter 52: Maximov,
Chapter 53: Elizaveta,
Chapter 54: Maximov,
Chapter 55: Maximov,
Chapter 56: Maximov,
Chapter 57: Elizaveta,
Chapter 58: Elizaveta,
Chapter 59: Elizaveta,
Reading Group: Guide,