Sunday, July 04, 2010

I Can't Be Quiet About This One - The Silence of God Is a Touching Must-Read

(Image from Deseret Book)
"Johan looked at her straight on. 'Neither Marx nor Lenin knows how man will change from a selfish lout to a caring, hardworking comrade. They just believe that somehow he will ... But you cannot change a man's nature or behavior by outside means, Natasha Ivanovna. There must be a change of a man's heart, and only God can do that.'"

Pretty much everything I know about tsarist Russia comes from the movies Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and Anastasia (1997). I'm sure I studied world history at some point during my schooling, but when I think of early 20th Century Russia, I see animated figures dancing around Palace Square and hear Tevye singing, "If I Were A Rich Man." Yes, I do realize that my tenuous, Hollywood-tainted grasp on Russian history is slightly pathetic. However, it explains, at least in part, why I was so thrilled when Deseret Book offered me the opportunity to review Gale Sears' new novel, The Silence of God. The story unfurls in a time and place that I've only experienced through film - reading about the rich, complex history of St. Petersburg brought the setting to life like no movie ever could. If the words to "Sunrise, Sunset" floated through my head as I read, well, that's not such a bad thing, right?

Although the book is fictional, it centers around a real family, the members of which were the only known Latter-Day Saints living in Russia at the time. Johan Lindlof, the father, made his living as a gold and silversmith. His job provided enough income for the family to live in relative luxury as part of St. Petersburg's wealthy, bourgeois middle class. He and his wife were the parents of eight children, the oldest of whom was born in 1888, the youngest, in 1903. The story focuses mainly on Agnes (b. 1894), who was in her early 20s when most of the book's events take place.

The Silence of God begins with a quiet blessing of the Russian land by apostle Francis Marion Lyman. The Lindlofs are thrilled to be in the presence of a respected leader of their church and even more delighted by his prayer, which prophesies that their country will be important in the spread of the Gospel. Although the Lindlofs have great faith in the Lord, present circumstances hardly indicate an opening of minds or softening of hearts toward God. With poverty running rampant through St. Petersburg and the common people up in arms over the tsar's apparent indifference, it looks as though the city's headed for war, not religious enlightenment. When the Bolsheviks seize power, everyone's loyalties become subject. The Lindlofs become targets not only because of their money, but because of their strange American religion. Johan believes in obeying the laws of his land - he just doesn't agree with the rebels' Socialist ideals. His staunch faith, coupled with his refusal to side with the Bolsheviks, puts Johan and his family at great risk in a city pulsing with an unrest that's becoming more violent by the hour.

Natasha Ivanovna Gavrilova, a Bolshevik propaganda writer and Agnes' lifelong friend, knows the Lindlofs are good people, even if they have been bamboozled by angels and golden bibles. Her father, a university professor, has taught Natasha to think carefully about everything. And she is. Maybe too carefully, because a conversation she has with Johan Lindlof about the difference between Socialism and Mormonism's law of consecration just won't leave her mind. Who will bring peace to Russia, she wonders - Lenin and the Bolsheviks? The tsar? The Mormons? The more Natasha Ivanovna considers the question, the more confused she's becoming. When the Lindlofs suffer a terrible fate, she must decide where her loyalties lie. Only Natasha Ivanovna, a recognized Bolshevik, has the power to save her dearest friend, a woman her comrades have declared an enemy-of-the-state.

Set against the tumultuous backdrop of a country in crisis, The Silence of God is the unforgettable story of a family whose faith sustains them even in the most desperate of circumstances. As preachy or cheesy as it may sound, the book is much more than a tale of enduring to the end. Since we spend most of the story inside Natasha Ivanovna's head, we delve into the eternal and inevitable clashes between politics and religion; youthful zeal and tradition; the common people and their governments; and, of course, man's weakness v. God's power. It's these ideas, plus the way Sears makes the history come alive that makes this book so riveting. Usually, I dislike historical fiction in which the history vastly outweighs the fiction - in this book, however, I hardly cared. The drama, tragedy, and triumph intrinsic in Russia's history swept me clean away. Viewing it through the struggles of the Lindlof Family only made it more vivid, more real. Even though I had trouble keeping track of the many Lindlofs, none of whom were rounded enough to really stand out, I realized just how "close" I'd grown to them when I discovered that Sears altered their fates in the book. It still surprises me, somehow, that real life can be so much crueller than fiction.

As much as I enjoyed both Fiddler on the Roof and Anastasia, The Silence of God made me realize how much I missed by allowing them to be my only portals into Russian history. Tevye still makes me laugh and the possibility of Anastasia's survival will always capture my imagination, but Gale Sears is the one who really made it all come alive for me. I can't be quiet about this one - The Silence of God is a touching must-read. It does more justice to the richness of tsarist Russia than anything else I've encountered. Don't miss it.

(Readalikes: Reminded me a little of Dean R. Hughes' World War II series, Children of the Promise)

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for war-related violence and threats of violence (both physical and sexual)

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of The Silence of God from the generous folks at Deseret Book. Thank you!

2 comments:

  1. I'm so excited to read this one! I read part of Gale Sears series on WWI and enjoyed it. This one has such a unique setting, and premise that I can't wait to read it. I'm excited that you enjoyed it.

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  2. I just finished this book as well. When I saw it on the shelf at Deseret Book I was intrigued about the history and the place. I was drawn into the story but somehow felt a bit disappointed. I think you stated why when you wrote, "none of whom were rounded enough to really stand out."

    I think I was longing for stronger character development. However, I've continued to think about this book many times since finishing it, so I know it made a strong impact.

    It also made me think of my Aunt Raija of Finland. She and her family were refugees from the Red Army when they overtook the family's homeland near St. Petersburg prior to WWII.

    Enjoyed your review! Guess I could have waited and borrowed your copy of this book :)

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