Naina and Katya Arrive in America

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 bloghop. It differs slightly from the published version, such as in the pedantic use of accent marks and the name of Katrin’s husband. His name is now Sandro, not Sandros.

***

So begins Chapter 29 of The Twelfth Time, “Naina and Katya in North America,” and the linking-up of their story with the story arc of the main characters. Katrin’s husband Sandros, an Ellis Island worker, notices the girls as they’re unboarding, and is moved to helping them remain in the country by sponsoring them.

***

Sándros watches the people unboarding a ship from Varna, Bulgaria on Thursday, June 16. He knows how lucky these people are to be allowed entry to the United States, given the racist quotas limiting Eastern European immigration. At first he wondered why some of the people unboarding look more like tourists than immigrants, and was told by one of his superiors that the passengers include a young dance troupe who’ll be performing in the city and several other locales. At least the dancers will be easier to process than the people who are coming to stay, he thinks as his eyes are drawn to two young ladies who seem a bit out of place in the crowd.

“Do you speak Russian?” the younger one asks nervously.

“It’s my native language, though I’m actually Estonian. But aren’t you young ladies Bulgarian? Are you some of the White Russians who escaped to Bulgaria and are only now coming to the United States?”

“We’re coming from the Ukraine,” the older one says. “I was born there, though I’m an ethnic Russian. Both of us were living in Russia till sometime in late 1919, when we were shipped to an orphanage in Belarus and then to an orphanage in the Ukraine, where we remained till last January. We went to Bulgaria this April, on the pretense of taking a cruise, and were met by a man who put us up in a hotel until this ship was due to take off. We’re not really in the dance troupe. Our good man who arranged to put us on the ship to Bulgaria said we could declare political asylum once we got here.”

“We’re not going to be sent back, are we? My younger cousin disappeared on the train taking us from the orphanage to Cherkasi last January, and I hate to imagine what her fate might be if she’s still alive and well. For all I know she’s being taught we’re enemies of the people for wanting to get out of there. I was already concerned at how the orphanage teachers got her to adopt a quasi-worshipful attitude towards Lénin.”

“Do you girls have a place to stay, jobs, or any money?” Sándros asks. “I’m sure they’ll grant you political asylum, since this country hates the Soviet Union and Socialism in general, but customs have been known to send people back if they can’t produce any proof of waiting work, a place to stay, or people sponsoring them. For the last three years, the only people coming through here are war refugees and displaced people. The peak immigration days are over. In fact, this serves as more of a detention and deportation center than immigration station now.”

“But that’s not fair!” the older girl protests. “This is supposed to be the richest and best country in the world! Why are they turning away deserving people who’ve been through a lot to get here?”

“In 1924, a racist immigration act was passed, severely limiting immigrants from places that make the establishment uncomfortable. That includes Eastern and Southern Europe, as well as Asia. There’s a lot of hostility towards foreigners in this country, sadly, particularly if you’re not from Western Europe. Do you have anybody you know who’d come to get you?”

“I have a feeling my aunt is alive and escaped Russia,” the younger one says. “Though I have no idea where she is, or if she came to Canada instead of the United States. I did hear some things about how Canada was more welcoming to immigrants these days.”

Sándros looks around as the arrivals continue entering the building. “I may be Estonian, but I have connections to the Russian immigrant community because my wife is friends with a lot of Russians. She lived in Russia from April of 1917 to February 1921 and came here with a number of her Russian friends. We also know some Russians who settled in Toronto, Canada. One of our friends might be able to find some information for you. In the meantime, I’ll offer myself as your sponsor. When they ask you who’s sponsoring you or where you’re going to stay, you provide my name and address.” He writes it down on a notepad and rips the sheet out. “What are your names, by the way?”

“I’m Kátya Chernomyrdina and I’m nineteen, and that’s my best friend Naína Yezhova. She’s fifteen. Her aunt and my mother were best friends too. That’s how we met each other when we were tiny.” Kátya looks at the information he’s written down in Cyrillic. “Your name doesn’t look very Russian or Estonian to me.”

“Well, my surname had to come from somewhere, and not all Russians or Russified Balts have names reflecting that. I think my parents were trying to give me a Greek-sounding name, since we’re Eastern Orthodox. Anyway, I’ll come to get you either later today or tomorrow morning. My wife and I have to go to a wedding on Saturday, so you can get settled into our penthouse while we’re gone. My wife has a lot of money, and every summer she finances a trip for us and our friends to Coney Island and Long Island. There are a lot of other Russians in the hotel we stay at on Coney Island, and there are also a fair number of Russians at the place we stay at on Long Island.

“Would you like to come as our guests? It doesn’t sound like you really had a childhood, and it might be nice to enjoy amusement parks and beaches instead of spending your first months here worrying about making a living, finding housing, or tracking down friends and relatives. We can put you in a room adjoining one of our hotel rooms on Coney Island, and then let you have one of the floors of the house we rent on Long Island. There are five stories, and one of them has been free for the last couple of years. My wife’s friends had a falling-out with two women who were staying with us that first year.”

“You’re an angel!” Naína says. “What a nice way to come to North America!”

Ellis Island (Euphemia)

Font: Euphemia (wanted Edwardian Script, but it was too hard to read for an extended period, even in 30-point type)

Chapter: “Ellis Island”

Book: You Cannot Kill a Swan: The Love Story of Lyuba and Ivan

Written: Spring 1999 or 2000

Computer created on: It was a Mac that must’ve been made in ’96 or ’97, or a new ’99 one.

File format: Word98 (first and only time I wrote any chapters of my first Russian novel in Word!)

This is Chapter 22 of my first Russian historical novel, the first chapter of Part II, “America.” I had so much fun doing the research for this, because I’ve always been fascinated by the history of immigration to the United States, and Ellis Island. More recently, I went back and did some editing on this chapter, after finding out some new information (like how single women and unmarried couples weren’t allowed to leave alone, and how immigrants had to do puzzles to test their mental powers).

Our characters arrive on 3 May 1921, after having left from the port of Tallinn on 15 March. They were very lucky to get in, as restrictions on immigration began tightening that year. In early 1924, it became even more difficult for anyone from Eastern or Southern Europe to immigrate, thanks to all those racist, xenophobic laws. People from Asia couldn’t immigrate even with a miniscule quota (which was never even met in all those years it was on the books). America is made of immigrants, even the Native Americans themselves. These laws severely restricting certain races and ethnic groups from entering are one of the biggest black eyes in our nation’s history. Many people died because they weren’t allowed to leave dangerous situations, like Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. Rant over.

Lyuba’s party traveled second-class, but they end up having to go through the processing station with steerage, instead of inspected right on the boat like they were promised. Along the way, there are a couple of problems, but eventually everyone is allowed to enter the mainland. I now realize that a large White Russian immigrant community was established uptown in Hamilton Heights, but I’m too used to having them in the Lower East Side to undertake significant rewriting to change the setting. I think the downtown setting works better for the storylines of the first two books than putting them uptown would anyway.

The chapter ends with Kat and Nikolas’s wedding and Nikolay’s baptism at the Kissing Post.

Some highlights:

“The Americans in government now are racists,” Katrin proclaims. “Don’t you remember what Pyotr said?  They’ll send back people with a little birthmark on their neck if it looks like it’s contagious.  I even heard they once sent an old woman back because one of her fingernails was black, even though it wasn’t from disease.”

“Does anybody here have relatives to take them in?” Katrin asks. “I also heard they routinely send people back if they don’t furnish proof of employment or family waiting for them.”

“Time to be checked out by customs,” Katrin’s young suitor tells them after the three hours are up. “Don’t say anything incriminating.  And be warned, single women aren’t allowed to leave the island without male escorts, and they don’t let unmarried couples leave together.”

Anastásiya screams as the eye doctor flips her eyelids back with a buttonhook.  Katrin begins to whimper when her turn comes up.  That indignity, however, is soon overtaken when various jigsaw puzzles are set before everyone.

“I’m twenty, not five,” Katrin huffs. “If you’re giving us these puzzles for us to pass our time, you could at least do to give us puzzles with a hundred or more pieces.”

Anastásiya has switched from crying to her old bad habit of biting her nails since she’s gotten discharged by the doctors.  She’s biting them harder and more desperately than ever before because she’s afraid of spending the night here, on Ellis Island, surrounded by strangers.

Lyuba watches with tears in her eyes as the priest marries Kat and Nikolás.  Kat is wearing a purple silk gown and holding a nosegay of flowers she’s bought from one of the vendors.  Nikolás is wearing the only suit in his possession.  Kittey stands by, wearing a pink velvet dress and holding a second nosegay, serving as the bridesmaid.  For the first time since the Revolution, everyone in the wedding party is able to take Communion.

Favorite Character Blogfest

I’ve signed up to take part in the Favorite Character Blogfest, in which participants talk about their favorite characters they’ve created, and post either a character sketch or scene featuring them. I have so many favorites in each of my three main casts of characters (my Atlantic City books, my Russian novels, and the Troys, the Ryans, and their friends), but I chose my beloved Katrin (formerly known as Catherine) from my Russian novels. (She’s not the main female character, of course; that’s Lyuba, formerly called Amy.)

When I started the first book coming up on 19 years ago, I really didn’t like Katrin. None of the characters were particularly vibrant, multi-faceted, mature, or well-rounded (I was only 13 when I wrote the original sections of the first 7 chapters, after all), but Katrin was one of the ones who wasn’t written very sympathetically. I saw the world in black and white, and just wrote her as some stupid fashion-obsessed girl who was heartless and dumb enough to become a Bolshevik. But starting when I went back to the book in November ’96, I began to like her more and more, and so she was gradually rewritten as a sympathetic, intelligent person, albeit one who has some flaws best attributed to youth and naïveté.

Katariina Nikonova, later Kalvik-Nikonova, is by far the most radical of the main female characters. From the start, she has hair cut as short as a man’s, is a proud Estonian nationalist, a long-time Socialist, and has grown up very resentful of her parents for being self-hating Estonians who kowtowed to the policy of Russification and the Estonian leaders appointed by the Tsar. When the Tsarist students are being expelled from the heavily Bolshevized gymnasium in Chapter 1, she jumps at the chance to continue her schooling in exchange for her parents being sent to prison.

On the eve of their departure for America, late in Part I, she realizes that the Soviet way of practicing Communism has betrayed her fellow Estonians, and is not what she believes in. Once in America, she modifies her political views, becomes very involved in the Socialist community, writes for many left-wing Estonian, Russian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and eventually English newspapers and magazines, starts dressing like a flapper, wholeheartedly embraces twilight sleep for childbirth (in spite of being upset about some of the things done to her at the hospital), has an early form of tubal ligation after her five girls (though she’s going to get a surprise sixth child in the third book), sometimes wears pants, treats her African-American maid Mrs. Samson not only like her equal, but her friend, invests in the Stock Market, and completely abandons the ridiculous clothes she used to wear. Her best friend Anastasiya (the nicer of the two antagonists of the first two books) is scandalized at how she’s become such a modern woman and no longer hangs up pictures of handsome men or cares about things like balls and society parties.

This is from Part II of the first book, Chapter 22, “Ellis Island.” Katrin doesn’t know it yet, but the Ellis Island worker she’s pestering for preferred treatment is her future husband, Sandros Kalvik.

***

“Excuse me.” Katrin pokes one of the men in charge of escorting the immigrants. “I happen to be a very rich woman.  I would’ve traveled first-class with my best friend Stásya here, only the man who got us on the ship made us all travel lousy second-class.  We’re special and demand to go to the head of the line!”

“I can speak your language, but I detect a foreign accent of some sort.”

“Oh, Russian is my second language.  I’m actually Estonian.  So is my best friend and that other woman over there, the pregnant one.  I was a very important person back in Russia, though, in spite of being Baltic.”

“Even you have to wait your turn in line, Miss.”

“Miss Katariina Nikonova.  You know, I was named for Yekaterína the Great, and I certainly command as much respect as she did!  I go by Katrin, my Estonian nickname, though you can also call me Kátya.  Nobody ever calls me Yekaterína.  And I’m a whole sight better than some of those other women who unboarded the ship with my party!  Sniveling for their homelands, rags tied over their heads, ratty hair all full of rats’ nests, bad taste in clothes, totally illiterate, yet here I am, nice short hair, fashionable clothing, I’ve read all the most important minds, and I even had my own maid!”

Katrin has chosen to unboard wearing a new outfit she bought in Tartu and hasn’t gotten the proper chance to wear yet, a green velvet blouse matched with black leather high-heeled shoes, blue silk stockings, and a white silk skirt.  The man takes in voluptuous Katrin with her piercing green eyes and vixeny short haircut, and his heart begins to race.

“It just so happens, I also am Baltic.  I’m Estonian too.  Although I never learnt the language and was raised by my parents in Kalinin.  They despised being Baltic.  Me, I’ve been here since I was fifteen.  I’m twenty-three now.”

“I can teach you our language.  That is, if you let my group and I go up ahead in the line!”

The man is already quite taken with brash Katrin, so he lets her group of twenty-two go on ahead.  Katrin proudly shows off his telephone number to the others.

“You just get here and you manage to meet an Estonian man who’s already got a crush on you,” Anastásiya smiles. “Way to go Kátya!”