Saturday, September 12, 2015

A History Story for Our Time

Coming Out of the Ice, Victor Herman
Freedom Press, 1979, 369 pages

Sometimes readers get on a kick and read similar things for a while: books about animals, or biographies of famous people, or fantasy fiction. If there's a kick that's sure to both bring you down and make you wildly glad to be alive, it's memoirs of prison camp survivors.

After a friend found out that I loved Unbroken, she loaned me Coming Out of the Ice: An Unexpected Life with promises that I'd be impressed. I devoured almost the whole the book in three days. And with each turn of the page, I became more and more grateful for the life I have, and for the choices my parents - and their parents - have made which have given me this free and overflowing life.  

Victor's story hinges, as do most lives, on the decisions and passions of his parent. His father, Sam, a Socialist living in Depression-era Detroit, jumped at the chance to live in Russia for a few years, helping to further the cause in a practical way as an auto mechanic for the Ford Motor Company. Victor was a teenager in 1931 when he traveled with his family to Russia and he expected to be back home in three years. Instead, he spent the next 45 years battling one harsh Russian wilderness after another: first a long and unexplained imprisonment, then a sentence of lumberjacking forests in Siberia, then an isolated exile, and finally an extended tangle in the endless red tape of the Russian government.

But it didn't start out that way. For the first few years, life in Russia bloomed for Victor. He found himself to be skilled at nearly every sport he attempted, and joined local teams to compete in basketball, riflery, boxing, and track events. Later, after being taught to fly airplanes in a prestigious flying school, he taught himself fancy piloting tricks, took up parachute-jumping, and even logged a world record deadfall jump. He even became known internationally as the Lindbergh of Russia.

And then... An arrest one July afternoon after a track practice. A year in one prison cell shared with fifteen other men. Fifty-five nights of brutal beatings. No less than four different Siberian prison camps where failure to chop down the required trees meant no food and where even meeting quota brought barely a mouthful. Nearly two hundred covert meals of raw rat. Bits of toe chopped off with scissors after frostbite. "It was like anything else," Victor said of one camp's cruel method of food distribution. "You couldn't believe it at first. Then you got good at it. And then you prided yourself on your skill. That's what being a prisoner is, in a way - a man who at first can't believe it, and then he gets good at it, and then proud of getting good at what he could not believe."

Coming Out of the Ice records a life that became so unexpected, Victor ceased to be surprised. Unlike most who were subjected to similar experiences, Victor came back. "But not all of me came back," he said. "Something, I left behind. I think it was disbelief. Not ever again would I not believe. It will happen - whatever can happen will."

Today there is terror just as unbelievable on the other side of the globe. And for me, most of the time, it's easy to draw the curtains and leave it over there, hidden behind the headlines of articles that I choose not to read. But a story like Victor Herman's brings the real brutalities of oppressors into focus and reminds me that it's safe to assume that "whatever can happen will." Will my perfectly blooming life take a sharp turn toward something resembling Victor's eighteen years of imprisonment? Will my son's life? Could something so unexpected happen to us?

Victor doesn't mention faith in his narrative, so I don't know if he clung to the hope of eternal peace while enduring his tortured life. But whether he intended to or not, he pushed me to grip tightly to something no one can take away, to fix my eyes on the place prepared for me, and to prepare my heart for enormous loss, knowing that the things which really matter are secured already. It's not the sort of book I'd like to read often, but a prison memoir brings a helpful perspective to a life that seems rather ordinary. And perhaps it is mine, the one laced with blessings and heaped up high with things to be grateful for, that is actually the unexpected one.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

One Jumbo of a Sad Story

Jumbo: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant in the World, Paul Chambers
Steerforth Press, 2008, 208 pages

*Alert: Spoilers included*

I fell head over heels for circus lore after reading Water for Elephants, and was dying to get my hands on some real-life circus stories. The story of Jumbo seemed a perfect place to start. But this book was sad from start to finish. I turned the last page feeling disappointed, and Chambers' tone suggested that he did as well. His last line, which quotes the adage, "The bigger they come, the harder they fall," paints Jumbo's life as ultimately a let-down.

From the very start, Jumbo's entrance into captivity was marked by violence. The Victorian era had developed an entire business around the sale and trade of wild animals, so capturing elephant calves, and necessarily slaughtering their mothers, was common. I have a middle-of-the-road attitude about treatment of animals: I like to see animals treated with kindness, but I would never elevate the importance of an animal with that of a person. Perhaps the killing of Jumbo's mother, and other wild elephants, was excessively cruel, but perhaps bringing a baby elephant into captivity for the delight of thousands of people should be expected to have such a cost. Regardless, it does tug at the heartstrings to read about a baby taken so forcibly from his dying mother.

Jumbo's life in captivity continued to be laced with illness, deception, manipulation, and anger. Though he came to be nearly a national mascot while residing in the London Zoo, he was given to fits of rage and during some periods, his battered enclosure required daily repair. His keeper, a withdrawn and unsocial man, grew wildly possessive of Jumbo, not allowing anyone else to train or handle him. When sold to the American circus tycoon, P.T. Barnum, Jumbo apparently refused to go and it took the team nearly two months from the time of sale before they contrived a successful plan to move the animal from his London dwelling to the steamer that would take him across the Atlantic.

After just four years of touring with Barnum's circus, Jumbo met a shocking and violent end in a train wreck. His preserved and stuffed skin, which first toured with the circus and was then donated to Tufts College where it stood for decades, also met a tragic end when the building caught fire in the 1970's. His keeper, who had always been a loner and was even more solitary after the death of his companion, dropped off the map and most likely died in poverty. Even Jumbo's "wife," a female elephant who'd been housed with him in London and was later bought by Barnum's circus, was killed in a fire several years after Jumbo's death. How's that for an upbeat tale?

Jumbo might have lived up to 60 years in the wild had he never been captured. He might have enjoyed 30 or more in the London Zoo, if he hadn't been so troublesome. As it was, he was killed at the age of about 25, but his impact outstripped his lifespan for he had entertained tens of thousands of people in both Britain and in the United States and had planted his name firmly into the American soil as a household adjective.

If nothing else, Jumbo's story reminds us that nothing in this world can last and that perhaps by trying to hold on to something we love, we only make the parting more difficult when it finally comes. Furthermore, it uncovers the fact that life in the zoo or the circus is not as glitzy and magical as you might assume. Danger and exhaustion are a way of life and when tragedy strikes, the show must go on (even if it means whisking a killed acrobat from the ring before anyone notices). As a pleasure read, Jumbo was informative but discouraging. I suggest you take your reading hours elsewhere.