Character name changes should never be forced

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If you’re observing Yom Kippur in lockdown, may you have an easy and meaningful fast despite being deprived of going to synagogue and being with other people!

I recently took a short break in prepping the paperback production of the book formerly known as The Very First (always the title I’ll think of it as) to start work on the final draft of the book formerly known as The Very Next (also always the title I’ll think of that book as). Despite this delay, I have confidence TVF will be ready for its print run soon.

While going through TVN, I began thinking about how many of the Polish characters’ names are kind of boring. Not that that makes them bad names at all, just that they were chosen by a teenager in the pre-Internet age. While naming tended to be more conservative in the old days (i.e., the same small pool of names vs. a wider variety), it wasn’t super-unusual to encounter a name outside the Top 100.

Knowing now that it was extremely uncommon for Polish Jews to have Polish names, I added the detail that the Polańskis and Robleńskis got those surnames from ancestors who converted to Judaism.

A crit partner several years ago thought the explanation/defense of Polish first names is a bit overdone. I took her advice and reworked that aspect so it doesn’t sound so heavy-handed and run into the ground.

All that really matters is that the Polańskis are a modern family who feels it’s important to prove they’re just as authentically Polish as the Gentiles. That includes mostly having Polish names and not speaking Yiddish. They don’t want extra ammunition for persecution.

I changed the names of Krzyś’s older sisters Bogda and Filipa to Salomea and Faustyna, and while those are lovely names, they felt wrong immediately. While Bogda was never particularly developed, Filipa later becomes an important character as Samuel Roblenski’s second wife, the late-life love match he was denied in his first marriage. I can’t think of her by any name but Filipa!

Bogda, however, is also the name of Cinni’s great-grandma, and I’d prefer to avoid confusion by having two secondary characters with the same name. Bronia sounds close enough, and I’ve always liked that nickname for Bronisława.

I also changed the name of Kryzś’s uncle by marriage from Lech Gold to Bruno Lerner. Lech is already the name of Cinni’s grandfather, and Gold was a lazy, thoughtlessly-chosen surname. This guy’s the biggest intellectual in the family, the only one with a Ph.D., working with rare books at the National Library. I also intend to develop him into a more important secondary character, so he deserves more than a placeholder name.

Likewise, I’m changing the surname of Bruno’s adult stepdaughters from Szymborska to Saperstein. Too many names of Gentile origin in the same family feel implausible. It’s pretty obvious I wasn’t socialized in the Jewish community, since I genuinely didn’t know how unusual it was for most people to have surnames native to the host culture!

Bruno’s kids deserve more original names than Zalman and Luiza too. They were originally Solomon and Liza, and later changed to the closest Polish equivalents. Again, nothing wrong with either name, but not chosen carefully, and hardly the kinds of names an intellectual would give his kids.

I played with changing Cinni’s mother’s name to Carine, but that felt instantly wrong. Instead, I changed her birth name from Katarzyna to Karolina, her legal name became Caroline, and her nickname went from Cairn to Carin. One of her great-granddaughters is later named Karyn in her honour, so I couldn’t stray too far.

I’ll admit I was hesitant about keeping her name because it’s now a sexist pejorative. I immediately stop reading when someone calls a woman a “Karen”! If she’s done something legitimately bad, call out the specific action instead of using a slur that terminates thought, shuts down dialogue, and encourages more insulting of and presumptions about a stranger you know nothing about!

The best time to change a character’s name is early on, before you’ve had a chance to become emotionally attached to it. It’s also much easier to change if you’ve had a story shelved for a long time, or this is a secondary character you never got to know very well.

If it feels wrong, you’ll immediately sense it. And if it feels right, that new name might as well represent an entirely different character, nothing in common with the one bearing the original name.

Sonya Reacts

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This is the final of the twenty posts I originally put together on 24 June 2012 (plus a few posts from the same story arc done at later dates) for future installments of the now-defunct Sweet Saturday Samples hop. It differs slightly from the published version; e.g., I no longer pedantically use accent marks, and Mrs. Herzena is now Mrs. Kharzina.

***

In Chapter 32 of The Twelfth Time, “The Exodus Begins,” Sonya has finally discovered what happened to her surviving daughter. During Alla and Karmov’s wedding celebration, Ginny’s mother begins pressing, for not the first time, for a potential marriage match between him and Kittey. Ginny insists, as always, that he still loves Georgiya in the Soviet Union. Ginny and Georgiya will eventually be reunited, but not for many, many, many years. Ginny will meet his daughter Inga long before he sees his one true love again.

***

“Speaking of Kittey.” Mrs. Herzena takes a large piece of smoked fish from the serving platter. “Have you given any further thought to marrying her, Ginny? It’s not good for people of your age to be unmarried. I’m not suggesting having children immediately, since I didn’t, but at least have your own adult household. People will start to talk about you if you’re not married soon.”

“Not on your life,” Kittey says. “I’d never leave my brother and his family. I’m going to Minnesota with them. Perhaps when I’m a bit older, I’ll go to the University of Minnesota. But in the meantime, I have to help Kat and Kólya with running their planned general store. And my nieces and nephews adore me. How could I even think of deserting them?”

“Don’t take Tyotya Kittey away from us!” Anzhelíka begs.

“She loves us more than our mother!” Andréy says.

“I already have a woman I love,” Ginny says. “Kittey is too much like a sister to me to even think about in that way.”

“That girl is never going to defect,” Mrs. Herzena says. “She loves the Soviet Union too much. Unless that new Stálin fellow makes life as unbearable for her as that lunatic Lénin made it for us, she’s staying exactly where she is for the rest of her life. And you’re certainly not going home. Stop wasting your time dreaming about someone you’ll never see again. I’m sure she’ll move onto an attainable man soon.”

“Even if this Geórgiya does meet and marry a nearby man, I want you to stay in contact with her as long as possible,” Sónya says. “She’s the only person who can provide information on my daughter. I know parents are allowed to bring children to Canada and bypass immigration regulations, but I’m sure that man would fight such an order. I still can’t get over how he just took my Kárlochka eight hours away from where he found her and adopted her. Decent people don’t assume a lost child is unwanted or that no one’s looking for her!”

“He was always an annoying pain in the neck,” Ginny says. “I’m not surprised he’s still unmarried. But if Kárla loves him and calls him Papa Lyonya, it would probably be very traumatic for her to be taken away from him. No offense, Sónya, but you’re a stranger to her. She hasn’t seen you in almost nine years. She was far too young to remember when she was taken away.”

“I hope to God he suffers the same way we did when the Tsar was overthrown,” Naína says. “I’m not the only one who’s suspicious about how some relative nobody was able to rise all the way to the top, instead of one of Lénin’s top confidantes. Usually people are up to no good when they rise so high so quickly, and get rid of better-qualified competition in the process. I only hope our Kárlochka stays safe if bad things happen over there.”

“You can still have another baby to replace Kárla, Tyotya Sónya,” Tatyana says. “You’re Tyotya Gálya’s age, so I know you’re not too old yet to have more babies.”

“And you can find a younger man,” Nikoláy says. “Tyotya Mótya, Tyotya Gálya, and Válya Yeltsina married younger men. Maybe you can have a little boy with your new husband.”

“There’s no proof my Maksím is dead. I’m sure no priest would allow me to marry again if the status of my first husband is unknown.”

Tyotya Állochka just got married again, and she found out her first husband was dead,” Novomira says. “A nice priest will understand your first husband is probably gone, but there’s no way to find proof.”

“You’d be blameless,” Kittey says. “At least think about it. I’m too young to think about marriage, contrary to what Ginny’s mother thinks, but you’re too old to not think about remarriage and more kids while you’re still fertile.”

The News Trickles Down

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This was originally one of twenty posts put together on 24 June 2012 for future installments of the now-defunct Sweet Saturday Samples hop. It differs slightly from the published version; e.g., I no longer pedantically use accent marks, the Herzens are now the Kharzins, there’s less passive voice, and Mrs. Kharzina refers to her husband as Tatyana’s Dyadya (Uncle) Mishenka, not her Dvoyurodniy Dédushka (Great-Uncle). The former is much simpler, even if it’s not their official relationship.

***

During Chapter 31 of The Twelfth Time, “Ivan Loses His Accent,” Lyuba’s cousin Ginny gets Georgiya’s latest letter, which breaks the news about Karla. Now the only thing that remains to be done is to tell Sonya what’s happened to her daughter.

***

Sunday after church, the Konevs are invited to the Herzen house for lunch. While Tatyana and Dárya hold hands and skip ahead of their parents and other siblings, Fédya drags his feet the entire way there and constantly snaps and complains about everything. Lyuba feels wounded every time he raises his voice to her or utters unkind words, and Iván now knows why some parents hit their kids in the heat of the moment. He struggles to honor the promise he made to himself long ago to never raise his voice or his hands against any of his children.

“Ginny got a letter from that girl he thinks you should forward to Sónya,” Mrs. Herzena says as they’re waiting for lunch to be done. “He says his eyes almost fell out of his head when he realized what exactly that girl was saying.”

“She has a name, Mátushka. Her name is Geórgiya.” Ginny opens the nearest candy jar and pops some gumdrops down his throat.

“That’s snack food for between meals. You’ll spoil your appetite if you fill up on them before lunch. Surely you’re a big enough boy to know that by now.”

“I’m twenty years old. That’s a man, not a boy.”

“As long as you live in our house, you’re a boy, not a real grownup.”

Ginny rolls his eyes. “Thank God I’m finally graduating in June. I can’t get out on my own soon enough.”

“And who will you marry once you’re an independent adult? Every man needs a woman of the house. I don’t know how your cousin’s friend Pável does it, living all alone for so long now. At least he could hire a housekeeper and a cook, if he’s going to insist on waiting for his girlfriend to be released from Siberia and make her way here. From what I hear, he’s making more than enough money to afford a few servants.”

“What exactly is in this letter?” Lyuba asks. “How does this concern our friend Sónya?”

Ginny gets up to fetch the latest letter he’s received from Geórgiya and points to one section in the middle. “Right there. It’ll tell you everything you need to know about what really happened to Sónya’s surviving daughter.”

Lyuba scans the five paragraphs Geórgiya has written about Kárla, not sure whether she should feel relieved or horrorstruck. On the one hand, Naína, Kátya, and Sónya will have their minds set at rest as to whether Kárla is alive and in good hands. But on the other hand, this means she’s still in the Soviet Union, being raised by people whose belief system is the antithesis of her shrunken family’s. And Leoníd made no efforts to try to find her guardians or even to tell the police he’d found a missing child. Silently she gives thanks Tatyana was never taken away to an orphanage either of the short times they were separated back home.

“Is there anything that poor woman can do to get her child back?” Iván asks as he takes a turn reading it. “She’s now a Canadian citizen, and her only surviving child is being kept in a hostile country, raised with odious beliefs, with a potential dictator as the new leader. They must be filling that poor kid’s head with lies about how her real family is so horrible for being anti-Bolshevik. She might not even want anything to do with them if anyone succeeds in taking her out of there.”

“With what authority?” Mrs. Herzena asks in resignation. “Leoníd, even if he is as stuck-up and annoying as you all say, has legally adopted her, and she’s been living in that house for almost two years now. She must be attached to her new family. Any child who was raised in orphanages must feel it’s a dream come true to be adopted by a man who lives in a mansion, has servants, and makes enough money to take her on vacations, buy her fancy presents, and enroll her in a private state-run school.”

“I don’t think he’d want to turn her over, even if Sónya had enough money, connections, and determination to get a Supreme Court or Kremlin petition to have Kárla given back to her,” Ginny agrees. “Leaving the only real home she’s known and being forced to move to Canada would probably be very traumatic for her. I don’t even think Leoníd would respond to the letter if Sónya sent one begging for the return of her child.”

“But that’s not fair,” Tatyana protests. “Sónya’s thirty-seven now and getting old. She should get her little girl back while she’s still young enough to be a normal-aged mother. It’s not nice to keep a mother away from her own child.”

“I’m forty-four!” Mrs. Herzena says. “I’m seven years older than Sónya, and I don’t think I’m decrepit just yet. I could even have another baby if I wanted to.”

“Do you want to give Ginny a baby brother or sister? I love my little brother and sisters, even if my little brother has been really rude and mean to us lately.”

“Oh, no, I’m quite happy with only having one child. Your Dvoyurodniy Dédushka Míshenka and I deliberately chose to have just one. There are no problems we know of, but we just prefer having a small, quiet house.”

“I’m glad you’re only having me,” Ginny says. “That would be too awkward if you did have another baby when I was this old.”

“Wouldn’t a judge or government man step in and make Geórgiya’s brother return Kárla to her mother?” Tatyana asks. “You shouldn’t raise a child away from her mother if you know she’s alive and wants her child back. Bad guys took both her kids away from her, and one of them went to be with God early. Now she only has one left, and she’d be very happy if she got her back.”

“She’s not getting her back, unless Kárla takes it into her head to run away and finds a way to come to North America without being deported,” Mrs. Herzena says. “But perhaps someday they’ll be reunited in this lifetime.”

Emotional reunion

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This was originally put together on 10 January 2012 for a future installment of the now-shelved Sweet Saturday Samples hop, as part of Naina, Katya, and Karla’s story. It differs slightly from the published version; e.g., I no longer use accent marks, Katrin’s husband is now called Sandro, and some passive voice is eliminated.

***

This week’s excerpt is the conclusion of Chapter 29 of The Twelfth Time. Lyuba’s friend Sonya, who lives in Toronto, comes down to Long Island on the last day of summer vacation to pick up her niece Naina and her best friend’s daughter Katya. Naina and Katya were friends with Lyuba’s youngest stepsisters in the Soviet orphanage system, and were delighted to be reunited several months earlier. Sonya, who’s been away on vacation with her three surrogate daughters all summer, has only recently found out Naina and Katya are not only still alive but safe in North America. (The reader knows what happened to Sonya’s surviving daughter Karla, but Sonya won’t know for several more chapters.)

***

While they’re eating breakfast, the doorbell rings. Mrs. Samson gets up from a game of Mahjong with Mrs. Whitmore and pulls open the door to find Sónya.

Naína looks up from her waffles and dimly recognizes her aunt from the old family pictures she hid under her clothes at the orphanages. Kátya, four years Naína’s senior, only recognizes her a little bit better. Sónya, who hasn’t seen them since they were young girls, can only pick them out because they’re the only people at the table she doesn’t recognize.

Naína runs into her sobbing aunt’s arms, Kátya following and joining the embrace from the side. All three of them are invoking God and proclaiming their love, while the people at the table look away politely. Katrin kicks Anastásiya under the table when she catches her gaping at them.

“We’re going to go right to the depot and get on the next train heading for Toronto. I came here last night and stayed in a hotel, so don’t think I’m going right from one train to another. My dear sister Zinoviya, my brother-in-law Antón, my best friend Yuliana, and her husband Karl have been watching over you the entire time!”

“And I had a gun,” Naína smiles through her tears. “Papa handed me one of his handguns before we were taken away, and I hid it under my dress all through our years in the orphanages. It’s waiting to be packed up in my suitcase now.”

“I brought some thank-you presents for Sándros and Katrin for sponsoring you and putting you up in their home, and for the Konevs, Eliisabet, Kat, and Álla for taking care of you for an entire summer. I won’t hear of your refusing them. I also brought down our anniversary gift for Iván and Lyuba.”

“Do I get anything?” Anastásiya whines.

Everyone around the table laughs.

“Have you taken any active part in taking care of my niece and my best friend’s daughter, or have you just sat around thinking only of yourself as usual?”

“She doesn’t even take care of her own little boy, Tyotya Sónya,” Naína says. “He thinks Katrin is more his mother than she is, and he’s only twenty-one months old.”

“We got you and Iván an anniversary gift, Lyubochka,” Kátya says. “We’ll give it to you before we leave. And we got a little something for Tatyana and Fédya’s baptismal anniversary.”

Sónya goes into her suitcase and hands out the gifts. Anastásiya whines again when Sónya also gives some money to Mrs. Samson, Mrs. Oswald, and Mr. Rhodes, as well as small trinkets to Viktóriya, Véra, Natálya, and Fyodora.

“We’ll see you again sometime next year,” Sónya says. “As soon as you girls finish breakfast, you can finish packing your things and we’ll go to the depot. I can’t believe my little niece Náyechka carries a gun.”

“It came in handy when I encountered wardens who wanted to steal my necklace. It was the last thing my mother ever gave me, and damned if I’d let some overgrown bully steal it.”

“It belonged to my mother, your grandmother, before you. She gave it to you because citrine is your birthstone too. And look how well it matches your dark blonde hair.”

“My birthstone used to be citrine too,” Lyuba says. “Naína’s corrected birthday is the same day my birthday used to be before we switched to the Gregorian calendar, November twenty-ninth. She’s a fellow Sagittarius.”

“I bought my Lyuba a beautiful citrine bracelet ten years ago,” Iván says as he pours more maple syrup on his plate. “For the life of me I can’t remember what became of it. Someone must’ve stolen it, and it was too late by the time I remembered it and was free to give it to her after she was no longer with Borís and I wasn’t in that phony relationship with Voroshilova.”

“It may still turn up somewhere when you least expect it,” Sónya says encouragingly. “I found my dear sister’s only child and my best friend’s only child after assuming they were lost forever. Don’t give up hope too soon.”

***

At 9:00 at night, Kátya and Naína stagger into their new house with Sónya. After the eight-hour ride from Long Island to Toronto, all they want to do is sleep.

“Are these my new aunts you told me about?” Yuriy asks.

“Yes they are, and they can’t wait to play with you,” Sónya smiles. “But right now, they most want to be shown to their new room so they can sleep.”

Natálya steps forward. “I can’t wait to get to know you and have two new sisters. I’m Natálya Yeltsina and I’m thirteen, and those are my sister Léna, who’ll be twenty-one at the end of the month, her husband of a year, Karl Tsvetkov, also twenty-one, and Léna’s best friend Antonína Petróva, who’s twenty.”

“We’ve met Antonína before, a long time ago,” Kátya says. “We didn’t know her for very long, but we remembered her since she was the one who wrote the paper epitaph for poor little Mikhaíla.”

“I remember you too,” Antonína nods. “I’m looking forward to getting to know you a lot better. I honestly never thought I’d see you again after you left Mrs. Voznesenskaya’s orphanage, and never dreamt I’d end up with Naína’s aunt for my surrogate mother.”

“Follow me,” Léna says. “I’ll take you to your new room. It’s the last available room in this house big enough to be converted into a bedroom. Now we’re up to five bedrooms. When Kárlik, Yura, and I move out within the next few years, we plan to build a house next door so we can always be together.”

Kátya and Naína drop their suitcases as soon as they’re shown into the room, putting Kárla’s little suitcase into the closet. After throwing their travel clothes on the floor and pulling on their new nightgowns Katrin bought to replace their ugly orphanage-regulation ones, they climb into bed and look up at the stars through their window.

“It’s been a long way from Russia to Toronto,” Kátya says. “Perhaps somewhere out there, our Kárlochka is looking up at the same stars and being looked after by decent people.”

“Perhaps. We found Sónya and our old friends the Lebedevas after so many years. I guess some miracles aren’t supposed to happen overnight, since we might not appreciate them as much.”

“We’ll see her again someday. We have to believe that. Even if we’ll never see our parents or other relatives ever again, we know Kárla could be out there somewhere.K It’s only a matter of time till we’re happily reunited with her the same way we were reunited with Sónya.”

*****************************************************

Georgiya Writes to Ginny

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This was originally one of a batch of twenty posts I put together on 24 June 2012 for future installments of the now-defunct Sweet Saturday Samples hop. It differs slightly from the published version in The Twelfth Time. E.g., I no longer pedantically use accent marks, and Ginny’s surname was changed from Herzen to Kharzin.

***

While Naina and Katya are preparing for their reunion with Sonya and move to Toronto in early September 1927, back in the Soviet Union, 20-year-old Georgiya is writing a letter to her long-distance sweetheart, Lyuba’s cousin Ginny (real name Mikhail, called Grigoriy by Georgiya). She’s letting him know about Karla, and this news is eventually going to reach Sonya.

***

Leoníd glares over Geórgiya’s shoulder. “What, are you still writing to that Herzen kid? He’s an enemy of the people, and so is his entire family! When are you going to give up that stupid daydream about him defecting and coming home? You need to find a suitable boyfriend at your teaching college, not some boy you haven’t seen in four years.”

“I’m telling Grigóriy all about the wonderful end of our Yalta vacation.” Geórgiya hits the return bar on the typewriter. “He’s kept me updated on his own summer vacation in America. He’s going into his final year of high school soon. I wish I could go there for his long-delayed graduation.”

“Would you bring Ínga and finally let him know he made you an unwed mother the last time he saw you? Boy, I can’t imagine how humiliating that must be for him, twenty years old now and going into his final year of high school. All his classmates must think he’s the stupidest thing ever.”

“He missed four years of school because of the Revolution and Civil War, and tested a few years behind when he immigrated. I’d probably be in the same boat if I’d been the one expelled from school and then unable to go to school until I went to another country.”

“I see you’re letting him know about Kárla, while once again omitting any mention of your illegitimate daughter. The kid’s three years old now. If you’re going to continue being his penpal, you can’t hide that mistake’s existence forever.”

“You adopted a child, however hastily and stupidly. I had a child out of wedlock. Society accepts your form of unmarried parenthood, but not mine. And he might get in a lot of trouble with his parents. They used to be missionaries.”

“You shouldn’t be in love with an enemy of the people, even long distance,” Kárla says as she has a tea party with Nélya and Ínga. “You haven’t seen him in a long time. Sometimes I miss Kátya and Naína, but not when I think about how they’re enemies of the people who wanted to take me away from my destiny. At least he gave you a cute little girl.”

“You see?” Leoníd smirks. “Even a child a month away from her tenth birthday knows you’re delusional and stupid.”

“Geórgiya isn’t stupid. I understand why she’s loved him so long, since he was her only boyfriend, but she should focus on better things now.”

“Exactly right. She’s going to do what’s good for her and stop her incessant daydreaming about her bastard daughter’s father before she gets any older. That includes no longer being in contact with an enemy of the people.”

“He believes in Communism same as we do. They just do it differently in North America.” Geórgiya pulls a full sheet out of the typewriter and rolls a blank sheet in.

“I’m not going to give up on you. Kárla used to miss her cousin and their friend, but we both got her to see sense eventually. You probably just need a little bit more time before reality finally wears you down.”

“And you clearly underestimate the power of love.”