This is my review of The House by the Dvina: A Russian Childhood by Eugenie Fraser.
Her memories of distant childhood perhaps sharpened with age, Eugenie Fraser became an admired author at the age of 80 with a fascinating account of early life as the daughter of a Russian father and Scottish mother, living mainly in Archangel near the Arctic Circle and "midnight sun", in the final years of the Tsar's Empire and the chaos of the Russian Revolution.
Some of her best anecdotes were related to her by relatives, such as her grandmother's courageous journey across frozen wastes, braving frostbite and wolves, despite being eight months' pregnant to beg for clemency from the Tsar to release her husband from prison. At first, it irked me that the author never seemed to question the Tsar's right to exert such power, nor the comfort and luxury in which her family lived. However, having built up strong images of an idyllic childhood, her descriptions of the stupid bureaucracy, incompetence, and gross injustice perpetrated after the Revolution greatly increased my sympathy for her viewpoint. I was impressed by her bitter analysis of the Allied Intervention during World War 1, which only supported the White Army temporarily because it was anti-German, since "in reality the Allies did not care what government took over Russia". As her step-uncle bitterly commented, "Why did they come at all? We shall pay a heavy price for this."
In the middle of the book, I began to find the introduction of an endless succession of Russian relatives too much to take. I grew bored by her preoccupation with trivial matters while "glossing over" important issues such as her parents' relationship. Yet I am glad that I persevered because of the poignant and thought-provoking, not to say exciting, final chapters. She shows not only the intensity of the will and ingenuity to survive, abut also how the strongest spirit may break under intense hardship.
I am sure that many readers will enjoy without criticism the evocation of a lost past, with the exhilaration of the sleigh ride across the frozen Dvina, the camaraderie of the communal baths where even the wealthy went to wash, the observance of rituals and the colourful characters in a large extended family.
Throughout the tale there are continual comparisons between northern Russia and Dundee in Scotland, where Eugenie was fortunate enough to be able to take refuge.