Have you ever experienced this quote?
We sometimes encounter people, even perfect strangers, who begin to interest us at first sight, somehow suddenly, all at once, before a word has been spoken.
Have you ever met anyone like that? A stranger in which you have a sudden connection?
So often the perfect person, the exact connection you need, unfathomably and with pinpointed timing, shows up just when you need them.
Perhaps a person you love?
Dostoevsky’s quote caught my attention just as I was finishing the novel, Mikhail and Margarita, by Julie Lekstrom Himes. The love story begins in the spring of 1936 in Russia. Based on the Russian literary legend Mikhail Bulgakov (who wrote the satirical novel, The Master and Margarita, critical of Stalin’s regime) the author brings to life the elegant, outspoken Margarita. We get to know her against the backdrop of the rapid, savage expansion of Stalin’s police state. As I read, the country’s rich legacy of literature and free thought begins to cower and falter as writers are arrested and tortured, and a systemic campaign to wipe out dissent spreads the reach of Stalin’s totalitarian regime.
It is a shivery threat. Against this backdrop Himes creates a tense three-pronged love story of Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov and a third dangerous, fixtionalized connection — an official from Stalin’s domestic security force, Ilya Ivanovitch, who falls for Margarita. Within this historical fiction cowardice, betrayal, loyalty and passion jostle against each other.
And love at first sight.
Love that’s urgent; love that impels crazy action.
It’s one thing to read fiction; it’s another to know of a true impetuous love story. Let me tell you this brief story about a Russian woman I knew named Marina. You’ll see why I remembered it.
When I knew Marina (“Mrs. Bliss”) she was a lovely Russian and French college professor, an acquaintance of my parents and regular attendee at our church. But her story begins as a teenager.
Marina is Russian but she was born and raised in Harbin, Manchuria. In 1931, while in her teenage years, the Japanese invaded Manchuria. In just a matter of days, the Kwantung Army swept into Manchuria and captured every city along the 730-mile length of the South Manchurian Railway. Located in the far northeast corner of Manchuria, Harbin bore the brunt of the Japanese’s initial attack, one of the first cities captured in the campaign. It became a major operations base for Japanese troops invading China and is infamous for its horrors of human medical experimentation and development of biological and chemical warfare,
Amidst this chaos Marina’s family fled.
For the next several years, shuttled from one home to another in Russia, Marina feels homeless and cut off from the only place she’d known as home. She is young, longing to move forward with her life but her family is constantly uprooted. Russia is increasingly unsafe. Tension is building in the country as Stalin and Leningrad loyalists clash and the Communist party begins to hold “trials” against its opponents. “Home” is insecure and frightening.
Then Marina gets a break: She receives an invitation to travel to the United States. Her older sister, who had married an American, is sadly a new widow and writes asking for Marina’s companionship. So, it’s in the late 1930’s that Marina travels to Janesville, Wisconsin.
What a contrast Janesville must have seemed to Marina. A thriving city in the 1930s with a General Motors plant and headquarters for the Parker Pen Company, a leading manufacturer of luxury pens. Marina quickly settles in with her sister and finds a secure job as a secretary at Parker Pen. She begins to trust that life can be lived in safety. Gradually her life settles and lulls into predictable and happy routine.
Suddenly, her peace is interrupted. A slip-up in paperwork brings her illegal status to the attention of immigrant authorities. Abruptly, she is arrested and deported to Canada. But now she is not the same cowed Marina who first arrived in the States. Undeterred she waits a few months and then slips back over the border to rejoin her sister just in time for the holidays.
It’s Christmas Eve, 1940. That evening Marina’s sister is visited by her late husband’s brother, John, who brings along a friend, Donald Bliss. Marina and Donald instantly feel a connection. Seven days later, on New Year’s Eve, Donald proposes to Marina. On January 11 they are married.
It took two weeks’ time. Two weeks for them to make a commitment that proved to last for decades, until “death do us part.” Even as her former homes in Manchuria and Russia were being closed off, a way was opening up for Marina to find a new home and life with a perfect stranger.
As a young girl, I always loved this story of overnight love. As a writer, it’s stories like these that I believe historical fiction can bring to life. This is the genre of a book I’d like to write someday.
Update to steps on exploring writing a book
Writing 30 minutes/day: Today is Day 85! Closing in on 100 days in a row. The 30-minute routine is beginning to establish a habit of writing and I’m grateful.
Starting connections into the St. Louis writing community: One of my goals is to begin to network with other professional writers. To begin, this week I’m reaching out to Angela Mitchell, Director of the St Louis Writers Workshop. I attended a creative writing workshop she conducted a year ago. My second contact is Denise Pattiz Bogard, who wrote The Middle Step, a story about St. Louis’ turbulent north side, and also has lots of resources for writers on her website.
Let me end with another Dostoevsky quote:
Don’t be overwise; fling yourself straight into life, without deliberation; don’t be afraid - the flood will bear you to the bank and set you safe on your feet again.
Time to fling!