The Midwife of St. Petersburg
In early-20th-century Czarist Russia, Karena Peshkev dreams of escaping her family’s country estate to attend medical school. But she continues to be waitlisted because her mother, the village’s midwife, is Jewish. On a visit to her wealthy cousin Tatiana’s St. Petersburg mansion, Karen meets Colonel Alexsandr Kronstadt, a member of the Okhrana, or secret police. While their attraction is immediate, Alex is meant for Tatiana, the general’s daughter --- a superior match politically and socially.
But when the accusations of Bolshevik conspiracy tear her family apart, Karena and her mother flee to St. Petersburg. The Okhrana believes that Karena is a Bolshevik traitor, in league with the rebel party’s leader. Will Karena and her family survive? Will she and Alex ever be able to have a relationship?
This historical tale of a Christian-Jewish family’s involvement in the Revolution is different and intriguing. Joseph Peshkov is a Christian, and his wife Yeva is a convert –- but she and her relatives (including scholar Uncle Matvey Menkin, who believes that Jesus Christ is the Jewish Messiah) remain under close scrutiny by the Okhrana. Complicating matters is the fact that Karena’s brother Sergei is deeply entrenched in Bolshevik activities. When Colonel Aleksandr Kronstadt is sent to investigate suspicious doings where the family lives, near Kiev, his infatuation with Karena leads him to help her and her family out of numerous scrapes.
Grandmother Jilinsky’s dreadful memories of pogroms in her native Poland, Madame Yeva’s hinky ownership of a stunning jewel and the fact that all available able-bodied men are either being conscripted into the military or sent to labor camps mean that a happy ending for Karena and her ailing mother will be hard to come by.
There were some elements in this book that I greatly enjoyed, not the least of which were a number of the characters. Uncle Matvey, with his gouty foot and book-crowded study, is a marvelous creation, a sort of antiqued “Jews for Jesus” proselytizer. Kronstadt’s stepmother Olga evokes all of the splendor and much of the guilt of the White Russian aristocracy. I’m not sure why author Linda Lee Chaikin always refers to the diamonds worn by the shallow aristocratic women as “South African diamonds,” unless she has some political bone to sharpen. That’s fine, but given the lack of similar digs at worldly things in the book, the shtick seems out of place.
I also liked the homework Chaikin has done on early 20th-century medical and hygienic practices; Madame Yeva believes as firmly in sickroom cleanliness as her idol Florence Nightingale did. I would love to see a book about Karena and her mother running a clinic for St. Petersburg’s ladies of the evening (as Karena does a bit of towards the end of the novel).
Reviewed by Bethanne Kelly Patrick on April 17, 2007