Estonia, Vladivostok, Oklahoma, Alaska, Oswego, Puerto Rico and Palestine (one cent)

The challenge is to put all these together in one brief posting.

Let’s start with “Oklahoma”, the Rogers and Hammerstein show which played to rave reviews, large crowds and several awards last year at DC’s refurbished Arena Stage, and which is now being reprised in a summer-long run. We missed it the first time, but saw it this week, following a surprisingly nice dinner at Matchbox on Capitol Hill. The entire cast is first rate, the music of course wonderful, the book still enjoyable if by now a little stale, and the choreography excellent. A high recommendation. (As an aside, since the play takes place in 1907, just before Oklahoma received its statehood, and because the stage is festooned with flags, I went back to look at the American flag of the period. There is a nice website (www.usflag.org), which will show you the many flag variations, including the flag used in 1907, when then play takes place, and the flag used in 1908 after Oklahoma statehood was announced, as well as the flags added after the further additions of New Mexico, Arizona and of course Alaska and Hawaii. Naturally, the only thing that changes is the number and placement of the stars, but that is interesting enough.)

OK, now to Oswego, Puerto Rico and Palestine. I have written several times about journalist Ruth Gruber, who is turning 100 this year. Most of you have not heard of her, I assume, but she is someone you certainly should get to know. She has had an extraordinary life, filled with first class journalistic exploits, strong and positive government service, and work to assist refugees and displaced persons.

I have read several of her fifteen or so books – they are all fascinating, but I would suggest you start with the two volumes of her memoirs, “Ahead of Time” and “Inside of Time”. Ruth Gruber, the daughter of European Jewish emigrees from Europe, attended college in New York and (to her mother’s chagrin, Madison Wisconsin, to which she hitchhiked in the 1920s) and then received a fellowship to study at the University of Cologne in Germany, where she wrote her thesis on Virginia Wolfe (whom she met and interviewed), and became the youngest woman in history to receive a Ph.D. Coming back to the United States, looking for a career in journalism, she received a traveling fellowship to go to the Soviet Union and Europe to study the position of women in Communism and Fascism, and became (by dint of perseverance and luck), the first foreign journalist invited to tour the Soviet Arctic. This led to newspaper articles and a book, and then to a government position as an assistant to Harold Ickes, FDR’s Secretary of the Interior, who sent her to travel throughout the territory of Alaska and give advice both with regard to military possibilities of the area and to future development.

From here, she was sent by Ickes to Europe to be the “mother hen” for the 1000 Jewish refugees which Roosevelt finally agreed to take into the country and put in temporary camp quarters in Oswego NY (she was still in her late 20s). She then fought for the eventual granting of American citizenship to them, so they would not have to return to Europe after the war, no easy task. She then became a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and, sometimes, its rival the New York Post, in Palestine, where she covered (and virtually joined) the Anglo-American commission which recommended opening Palestine to Jewish immigration (ignored by Prime Minister Bevin), the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine (UNSCOP), which to the wild objection of the Arabs recommended partition, and after that the declaration of the state of Israel and the 1948 war (oh, yes, she also followed, and wrote about, the Exodus, and its venture to and from and back to Palestine in 1947, the real story being different from, but just as exciting as, the Leon Uris version).

Throughout all of this, she met everyone, wrote about everything, and never kept silent about her own opinions. She was an advocate as well as a journalist and you can see something odd from her memoirs – she was actually able to influence policy several times through her articles and her chain of acquaintances and friends (and in spite of her enemies, of which there were obviously some, as well).

The second volume ends in 1950, when as a 39 year old, she marries. I assume no more volumes are to be written, but then you never know. She is only 99.

And finally, Estonia. I had earlier written that I had seen the theatrical version of Sofi Oksanen’s “Purge”, and that there was a book of the same time, now translated from Finnish to English. I found the book at Politics and Prose (I don’t think most stores are stocking it; it’s published by Grove/Black Cat in softcover), and I recommend it highly. It is a very well written story of two Estonian sisters who, after the Soviet takeover of their country, lead very different lives – one married to a member of the underground – is shipped to the Soviet Union, and the other – married to a Communist official – remains in the family home. More than 50 years pass with no contact until a young woman,, running from the Russian mafioso who have turned her life upside down, shows up at the house in Estonia – she knows that the owner is her grandmother’s sister, but her great aunt has no idea who she is.

The book weaves throughout time – short segments range from the late 1930s before the Soviet invasion) to the early 1990s and Estonian independence, and back again. Seamlessly. Oksanen, a young woman who has written three European best sellers, has the ability to write very simply, yet quite deeply, and to explain her many characters so well that you almost get the feeling that each is telling the story and that it is written in many first-persons. But it’s not. It’s a complex narrative, that picks up on the terrible consequences of this period of history for both Estonia and the Soviet Union. Highly, highly recommended.

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