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The Family Romanov Redux

In the original post on this title, Jonathan and Leonard Kim got into a little back and forth comparing it to REVOLUTION, so it seems apt to take this one up next.   How does it compare in prose, in structure and context setting?  Each book of course has a different ultimate goal:  Wiles’s is to take readers inside a time from a fictional character’s perspective;  Fleming’s is to craft and arrange as much available comment and scholarship on a time to give readers a variety of perspectives.

As Jonathan is not the reader for REVOLUTION, I am not the reader for FAMILY ROMANOV, so my appreciation is tempered.  My reader-perspective problem continues to be that I don’t care to spend so much time with characters (the Romanovs) who seem so unlikeable, but putting that aside, I find so much to like here.   Fleming’s done a remarkable job of weaving rich primary source material in with her own prose; while her writing may not stand out in as writerly a way as I appreciated in WEST OF THE MOON or REVOLUTION, nor in the journalistic author-present  call-to-action voice in PORT CHICAGO 50,  it is fluid and evocative, so that even if my tastes make it hard for me to get into the story, once I am on the page the writing draws me in instantly.    Her pacing and layering of the different perspectives is also well-done, and while her nonfiction angle allows for more flexibility in this regard that the “documentary fictional” one does for Wiles’, I’d argue that Fleming comes out far on top for any of our shortlist titles in craft of structure and context-setting.

Finally, while there are many who are concerned about the graphic violence and scandal throughout this story in regards to “a child audience,” this is the aspect of the story that I think  most clearly hits its mark.  What else better engages a child audience with history, honestly?  I don’t think that young readers who can’t handle this story will stick with it.   It’s pretty dark and gruesome throughout, so it’s not as if Fleming is unveiling any shockers.  Think of those 10 year olds who can’t deal with a  contemporary “chapter book” but will pick up 500+ page tomes of adult history in an instant.  This work is for them, finally, not for adults, and as such it is rare, and so: distinguished.

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Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at ninalindsay@gmail.com

Comments

  1. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Can you talk some more about finding the Romanovs unlikable? I don’t know that I’d want any of them for my BFF, but I didn’t necessarily find them unlikable. They were clearly the product of their upbringing, their experiences, and their personality. The thing that makes them really unlikable is the immersion into the various primary source documents.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      I understood them as products of their upbringing and experiences….and from that found them unlikable. I kept on trying to locate some sympathy for them, as I found the book to suggest we should, but ended up exasperated. This is a very personal, and possibly adult, response on my part, so this is why I tried to set it aside. I don’t think I’d have liked them when I was a kid, either, but that’s because I was sensitive to that sort of thing (spoiled privileged brats, to put it crudely) as a kid.

      Maybe my problem is that my gut approach to character development is as a fiction reader. I’m just seeing this angle. That is…I think the prose is leading me to “identify” in some way with the Romanovs, and I can’t, at any level. I’ve been saying I’m just not the reader, and that others may find it easier to connect. But am I reading this in the wrong way? Are we being asked to connect at all? Is the prose trying to get us to “understand” the characters without having to locate identifiable sympathy for them? Nonfiction readers help me out here….

      • As a major fan of non-fiction, I think your last question is a good one, Nina, and it’s the critical question that separates “The Family Romanov” from “The Port Chicago 50”.

        There are moments in the latter where I put the book down because I was so angry at the injustices. Is it because of Sheinkin’s “in-the-moment” writing? The urgency with which he spins the tale? Or is it because of the story itself (not necessarily the way its being told)? I think it’s a little of both. There is a newness to the story of these men, but Sheinkin is-a strong writer, and one of his strengths is keeping the reader with the action rather than just leading them through it. In that regard, Sheinkin deserves acknowledgment for distinguished writing.

        Fleming’s work, on the other hand, didn’t stir in me that call-to-arms or rage or fiery feeling, but I did like ‘The Family Romanov’ more than Sheinkin’s book (and I admit to being a Steve Sheinkin fanboy, so the mere fact that I put any non-fiction above his is, to me, pretty radical). I didn’t like the Romanovs as characters, no, but I did feel pity for them. One could argue that pitying a character isn’t a rousing testament to an author’s success, but that Fleming makes you feel *anything* for this sorry group of characters is pretty remarkable. They just seemed so sad and insular and icy… kind of like Russia itself. And there’s the other quality for me: Russia really did read like much more than just a place. It was brought to life as if it were both a foil and a sidekick to the Romanovs’ downfall. No ordinary or lackluster author can accomplish this. Furthermore, Fleming takes so many disparate threads and weaves them together with so much grace and fluidity that it’s nearly breathtaking. After reading the book, I couldn’t help but think, “Did she really just smoosh all of that story into one book?” A dynastic story in a slim volume: that’s talent!

        So maybe it’s a combination of all these points and more that really pushes The Family Romanov for me. But I also think it’s more likely to get a Printz nod… it’s about time the Printz medal winner was a non-fiction book. I, like, you got hung up on the whole “Is it for children?” question. I think it’s unanswered for me, but I do have 7th graders who read “Into Thin Air” (and love it), so what do I know?

  2. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    As a plot-driven reader, it’s not that important for me to identify with the characters or sympathize with them, although I know it’s a very important for character-driven readers. I didn’t need to locate the good guys and the bad guys in this story, because in truth they were all complex human beings. When you raised this issue in the previous discussion, it seemed that you had a hard time justifying the story without some kind of lesson to be drawn from this experience. I don’t think Fleming has explicitly connected the past to the present in the way that, say, Sheinkin and Marrin have done, for example. But I think that allows readers to draw their own connections and/or parallels. And the same can be said for the characters. You can identify with them. Or not.

  3. Maybe because I teach some children of today’s 1% I did feel empathy for the Romanovs. That said, I didn’t connect to them either, but then I didn’t connect to any individuals in this book. I was taken much more by the whole situation — the royals and those outside the palace gates. I agee with Joe that Fleming takes so many different pieces of the story and put them together so vividly and compellingly. I also was impressed with the primary sources; given the massive amount her distillation and her choices were impressive .

  4. Brenda Martin says:

    Her use and breadth of primary sources was indeed impressive. My issue was with the way she distilled those primary sources. More than a few times I wondered if her particular use of a primary source was done in a way to propel her narrative and create drama… or even worse, make broad claims based on what brief statements culled from primary sources had said.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Brenda, do you have some specific examples? I think that it’s important for members of committee to follow up on something like this, though it is sadly wildly time consuming….if there are places that give you pause, you can track down those sources and review them in their original context. I’ve done this in the past, though the criticism that always comes back to me is that I don’t do it for *everything*…and that at some point we have to trust the author’s scholarship. Both things are true, but as a reader, if I find that I’m not trusting the author’s voice, I need to do this backtracking work. Sometimes it has allowed me to trust the voice better, even if I end up distrusting their sources instead. 😉

      • Brenda Martin says:

        Hi Nina – sorry I was away for a few days. A few examples where I felt Fleming overstated her case without documentation: p. 38 “But it was too late. The people’s first impression was the lasting one. And they took it as a bad omen. The reign of Nicholas II, many peasants predicted, would be beset with troubles from God.” (Painting the people of Russia with a very broad brush.)

        Or p. 43, two examples in a row: “Some people shook their heads in disbelief, or spat three times on the pavement, a traditional Russian gesture of disgust. A few even exclaimed ‘Doloi nemku – Away with that German woman on the throne!’ (This isn’t documented clearly, and the paragraph reminds me of those partially fictionalized “We were there…” titles. Especially “some” people…”a few”. Very loose.)

        “Newspapers around the world gloomily reported the birth. ‘Czar Has Another Daughter,’ read the New York Times headline the next morning. ‘Russian People Again Disappointed’.” (Well, one newspaper reported it. The people were disappointed, but was the reporting gloomy?)

        Really it comes down to Fleming’s writing style. I don’t feel she is wrong about any of the facts that she writes about, but the *way* she writes makes me more dubious of them than I might otherwise be had she used a different narrative technique.

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        Brenda, thanks. I will admit that I share your skepticism, but that I simply find I haven’t enough time to fully look through enough examples to put my mind at ease. I have also found, over time, that my skepticism with this kind of writing style has *often* (not always, but more often than not) been tempered eventually by chalking it up to style and reading preference, and…as Steven pointed out in the current post, our tendency to “skip over the strengths of titles that you’re pretty sure shouldn’t be medalists” http://blogs.slj.com/heavymedal/2014/12/30/getting-ready-whether-real-or-mock/#comment-172415

        For example, I was not a fan of Sheinkin’s NOTORIOUS BENEDICT ARNOLD…and still, honestly, am not, because I think the writing style (similar to what’s going on here) is misleading. And yet, enough people have argued that this is an issue of stylistic preference, and that the book’s strengths are still outstanding, that I acquiesce, if I don’t agree.

        That’s happened to me more than once, and so I am skeptical of my own skepticisms, without dismissing either feeling completely. I have discovered over the years authors who I trust less and less because of what I’ve analyzed in their style. Fleming is an author I’ve trusted more over time. This is perhaps giving me a blind spot, and if I was on the actual committee none of what I have just said would be worth a penny. I’d need to go through the examples you’ve provided, and more, to get a sense of whether, on the whole, I believed Fleming’s style here was speculative (and then whether that was a glaring weakness), or sound.

        I’m curious if anyone else has thoughts on, or has done analysis of, Fleming’s “broad brush” approach that Brenda cites above.

  5. The thread here seems to miss the point about historical non-fiction. None of us were present at the Russian Imperial Court of Nicholas II and so, of course, everything we know must arise from those who were. For me, twenty plus pages of source notes, eight pages of bibliography and documented vetting by both American and Russian scholars, demonstrate that Fleming took the truth seriously. As with all good historians, Fleming does not simply present a series of events but has a take on the presented facts. Nina, all historical non-fiction is by nature speculative, but the speculations can only be trusted if the utmost diligence was taken in the research. For me, I trust a historian because they did the work and have shown me they’ve done the work. That is the gauge used to determine the veracity of the material. Otherwise, we may as well just present the source notes and call that a book.

    The example from page 38 that Brenda saw as painted with a “very broad brush” might be valid if what Fleming wrote weren’t a true and established fact. In a very short time the Czar was overthrown by his people, with few but nobility supporting the Imperials. And although it may be taken as “broad” out of context, the entirety of Chapter Two supports the statement. As in all histories there are collateral sources, testimonies and facts that are woven together and support one another.

    On page 43, Fleming quotes a “traditional Russian gesture” of the time and is not directly sourced (she just said it was a common saying) and somehow that questions the book’s veracity and places it into the “partially fictionalized” category? Seems unfair and I dare say, painting with too broad a brush.

    And the fact that Fleming did not mention multiple newspapers supporting her statement about the feelings of the Russian people at the time does not dismiss the one sited source. How many would be enough to convince? Ten? A hundred signed affidavits from certified Russian peasants? Fleming makes clear that the Russian royal family, like all royal families of the time, needed to continue the line of succession and agonized over the birth of a son.

    Finally, I recently listened to a podcast about Joseph McCarthy that was, to say the least, scathing in it’s portrayal. Still, at the end of the podcast the commentator admitted that despite all that was said, there may be a file in the Kremlin or some classified document we don’t know about that may “exonerate the Senator.” Should I doubt the writers of the podcast for relying of the preponderance of statements, film, recordings, eyewitness accounts and the Congressional Record because somewhere there might be a list of that proves McCarthy was right?

  6. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    The peasants are necessarily painted with a broader brush than the Romanovs–but anybody who has read much nonfiction will recognize it as a convention of the genre (i.e. The Pilgrims did this, the Indians did that, speaking of them both as monolithic entities because the true complexity of the situation would run the narrative off the rails). Fleming mitigates this effect, however, with those wonderful peasant vignettes interspersed throughout.

  7. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    Jonathan, I think you are right that the primary source vignettes throughout are what make the otherwise “broad brush” approach work…that is, Fleming is demonstrating individual and particular experiences that cumulatively echo her broader statements.

    To me, the argument that “anybody who has read much nonfiction will recognize [the] convention” is not and argument in favor of the style, nor for this audience. I don’t think that you’re necessarily trying to back it up based on this, but to me the fact that a nonfiction book is for a young audience requires that the author be transparent and not rely on recognition of conventions. I don’t think that Fleming fails in this respect, she’s presented plenty of context and explanation. I think that PORT CHICAGO 50 shines in this regard, as it is very clear how the story is constructed, and from what.

    • Jonathan Hunt says:

      Americans were upset about 9/11. True statement? Yes, but definitely a generalization and an oversimplification. The more complex truth is that Americans experienced a range of emotions about that day, not necessarily at the same time or to the same degree. Then, too, feelings shift and change over time so that what we felt today might not be the same that we felt yesterday. If I wrote that in a history book without substantiating it with primary source quotes or scholarly sources to back it up, then you’d probably give it to me. When you’re dealing with these big epic stories–whether in nonfiction or fiction–you’re more apt to see these types of generalizations being made for the sake of keeping the focus squarely on where the historian or the novelist is interested in taking the narrative.

      I can appreciate your preference for a different style of nonfiction, Nina, but it only lends itself to small stories such as THE PORT CHICAGO 50. Can you think of an epic nonfiction read along the lines of COUNTDOWN TO INDEPENDENCE, BOMB, or THE FAMILY ROMANOV that satisfies your requirements?

      • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

        Jonathan, I think you’re picking a bone I’m not interested in. I’m not disagreeing with you here.

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