Friday, September 23, 2016

Russian Idioms


Idiom (n): a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words.
In all three of my novels I gave my Russian speakers a definite Slavic flavor by having their dialogue employ regional idioms.  On one of my 'visits' to Belarus I shopped at a book store in Minsk.  Among the thousands of titles was an illustrated handbook of Russian idioms  Not only were the sayings presented in both English and Russian, but it also contained cartoons depicting each.  This book became my official source for much of my 'authentic' dialogue.
A Book of Russian Idioms Illustrated - by M. I. Dubrovin

 Massey and Sam Leave Home

In the first chapter of Ikons: Saint Nicholas the Wonder Worker, Massey convinces his brother Sam to leave their village by calling him one of the timid dozen.  In other words, he called Sam a coward.

Don't be a coward, Sam.
When their father learns of his sons' plan, Sergei chides them for their overly ambitious action. "You're dividing the skin of a bear you haven't killed," he growls, calling up an old Russian saying. In English it's comparable to 'counting your chickens before they hatch.'

Too much confidence

Boris Talks to Petr

My main speaker in idioms was Boris Lukavich Koscik, Akulina's father.  I sprinkled sayings throughout his dialogue resulting in his defining voice.  Boris' favorite catch phrase was, "or so they say."  For example in Banners: For God, Tsar and Russia, when Akulina questioned him concerning his unsuccessful meeting with the leader of the Old Believers' Boris complained, "It's like throwing peas against the wall, or so they say."
It's no use talking to him
In my opinion, the use of idioms colors a story's dialogue.  Especially, if you are using those from a foreign culture.  It is also an easy way to distinguish individual characters.  If one of them speaks continuously with idioms, you can drop the constant use of voice tags. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016


My three novels, Ikons, Banners, and Slogans, are based on a family history of immigrants and refugees.  While the immigrants' story shouts out from a trail of ships' manifests, passports, census records, and official documents; the refugees' story whispers through grainy black and white photographs and the hushed conversions of memories better left unsaid.
Belarus diaspora - 1915


In 1915 the Russian government instigated a scorched earth program to stop the advancing German army and ordered the evacuation of its western frontier.  My father's village, Hutava, was one of the hundreds abandoned.  While the plight of the inhabitants merited little more than a paragraph in history books, the event was seared into my father's memory.

Refugee Transportation
"We left with our cattle, horses, pigs and our goods.  We traveled in covered wagons until we reached Warsaw.  It took us five months.  We had no food left, no home--lost.  The Russian government put us on a freight train to Siberia, Chelyabinsk.  In the middle of the trip my mother got off to get water.  It was about 40 below and the train left without her.  It took her three months to find us."

The Silence of Horror

Not all refugees were fortunate enough to relate their ordeal.  In Russia's hardest hit areas, parents were faced with choices seldom passed on in family lore.  As food shortages and disease took their toll, mothers were forced to make heart rendering decisions.  How do you explain to those in a land of plenty you had to choose which child was fed and which was starved?  How do you tell your surviving children you abandoned their siblings and left them to fend for themselves?  How do you relate these horrors to those who know only comfort?

Abandoned Russian children in the famine region
In authoring Slogans: Our Children, Our Future, I felt obligated to speak for those muted voices.  It was not enough as a writer of historical-fiction to coldly chronicle events, but to also to relive its anguish.  It was nearly impossible for me to imagine what they went through, let alone reach inside their souls and expose their raw emotions.  It was difficult, but their silent screams made it necessary. 
Refugees awaiting transport - 1914
The refugees' story still continues.  But instead of grainy back and white, today their plight is broadcast in high-definition color.  Their faces still reflect the same fear of the unknown as those from a century ago.  Will a future writer tell their story?
Refugees awaiting transport - 2015

Breaking the silence

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Rockdale, Illinois

My trilogy, Ikons, Banners and Slogans, weaves together the tale of two villages; Hutava, Belarus, and Rockdale, Illinois.  In my previous posts I provided background stories of Hutava.  In this post, Rockdale, Illinois takes center stage.

Nestled along the banks of the Des Plaines and abutting the city of the city of Joliet to its east, lies the village of Rockdale.  In the early 1900's it was a small mill town that owed its existence to several industries including the United States Steel's Wire Mill.

Map of early Rockdale

The Wire Mill

My main character, Massey Pribish, was one of the thousands of Eastern European immigrants drawn to the labor intensive factories dotting the northwestern Illinois landscape and and one of the hundreds that gave Rockdale its Slavic flavor.  His story in Ikons: Saint Nicholas the Wonder Worker, is told through the heat and glow of molten steel of the wire mill.  Six days a week Massey trudged to this basilica of modern technology as its smokestack loomed over him like a modern Colossus of Rhodes.  Ten hours a day he labored in that hell driven by a single goal -- bring his wife and sons to America.

Rockdale Wire Mill - 1910

The Old House on Fisher Avenue

Massey, as did most immigrant men, lived in the cramped quarters of rooming houses clustered around on Moen and Otis Avenues.  It wasn't until the late 1920's that Massey saved enough to purchase a multi-family house on Fisher Avenue.  The basement's dank confines is where each of my novels began.
Massey Pribish's home on Fisher Avenue in Rockdale.
This picture clearly shows the style of homes of early Rockdale.  Note the stone foundation supporting the first floor.  Rockdale's limestone substrata made raised basements a necessity.

The Rockdale Streetcar

In Ikons, the long-gone Rockdale streetcar played an important role gliding along its single track from the village to the city.  I was fortunate to work with the nephew of the car's conductor.  He introduced me to the intricacies of the trolley operation and thus put a human touch on this rather mundane mode of transportation.
The Rockdale Streetcar

Rockdale Taverns

I would be remiss if I left out another of Rockdale's bustling industries--taverns.
Typical tavern in early 1900
I'm not sure how many bars and taverns existed in Massey's period, but during mine in the 40's and 50's Rockdale sported nearly forty, one for every twenty-five residents.  It was from these free-flowing taps I populated Massey's world.  Since my father partook of Rockdale's establishments of relaxation, I experienced the Jockey Club, Brosman's, Eniche's, Schmik's, and the 400 Club.  But the place that impressed me the most was Bill's Tavern.  Bill's was owned and operated by the Tallman family and young Buddy Tallman was my grade-school best friend.  It was my memories of Bill's that supplied the inspiration for Tallman's Tavern, my character's favorite watering hole.

Instead of William Tallman, I created the proprietor Wilhelm Tallman, a German veteran of the American Civil war.  Old Wihelm's past allowed me to decorate his bar as I recalled Bill's back in my day.  I furnished it with racks of civil war rifles, photos of old Union regiments and batteries, and bearded generals.  But the one imposing item I still vividly recall and would never forget was the barroom's lithograph of Custer's Last Fight.
While not historically accurate, the lithograph was spellbinding
To our gang of eager eight-year old boys, this battle scene depiction was the source of many arguments and reenactments.  I was naively optimistic that the horde of riders on the right were reinforcements coming to rescue Custer.  No one else agreed. But what I could never have imagined was that sixty years in the future, this image would still fire my mind and find itself in my first novel, Ikons: Saint Nicholas the Wonder Worker.