A Review of American Ending by Mary Kay Zuravleff

At the opening of American Ending (Blair, $28.95) by Mary Kay Zuravleff, Yelena boldly declares, “I’m American, so I figured I didn’t have to take what comes”, setting a tone that carries throughout the historical fiction novel. The first American born daughter, her parents left two other daughters in Russian Poland, she grows up on Russian Hill in the coal mining community of Marianna, Pennsylvania, with her younger siblings, a coalmining, vodka drinking father and a mother who recognizes the social currency in small gifts.  Yelena’s vision of America follows other immigrant children, a tension between her parent’s values and traditions and the different attitudes of the Irish and Italian neighbors she goes to school with.

Yelena navigates the beliefs of her parents (Old Believers in the style of the Russian Orthodox Church) while taking in the lessons of her Irish Catholic teacher Miss Kelly. She absorbs the Russian bedtime fairy tales but yearns for an “American ending” instead of the traditional Russian forced marriages, death, or betrayals that end so many of the stories. Her younger brother, Kostia, reveals to her the mutability of stories as he sits in the darkened coal mine at 11 years old, making up new meanings to the old stories. Adding color and richness to her dreams for her future.

Throughout the novel Yelena’s natural curiosities play against her fears of growing up, getting married and living a life much like her mother’s. Her childish modesty and natural logic lead her toward naïve beliefs about love, marriage, and sex. Oh, how 1913 American girls could have used the internet to their advantage! But there’s the point. Women had as much agency over their bodies as the knowledge the had about the way their bodies worked. This cultural ignorance leaves much of the female community reliant on folk remedies and sneaky ideas about controlling their husbands’ vodka habits, “you ask for a glass. Maybe you pour it in your mouth, maybe in the dirt” Ma advises her daughters. Not exactly marriage advice for the ages. It is the suffragists who Ma calls “Troublemakers” that replace the Russian fairy tales of Yelena’s youth.

Rather than structure a post-modern tell of an old-fashioned tale, Zuravleff crafts her story in the style of American Naturalism. This book reminded me deeply of My Antonia and I was amused when about halfway through the book Yelena got her own copy. Yelena’s frank observation as well as her honest fears render the dangers of life in the early 20th century as something of a rollercoaster ride with sickening turns and cliffhanger chapters. I was immediately engaged in a narrative told by an older Yelena who still manages to convey the wide-eyed wonder of childhood without the need for stream of consciousness or a myriad of flashbacks.

Instead, Yelena’s girlhood is told through a series of memories about her education, her family, and the mine tragedy of 1908 when a third of the Russian miners died in a fire. Interspersed with the drama of American history in the 1900s, is the drama of family, of rivalries between sisters and fears of parental punishments.

Mostly I was deeply touched by how profoundly immigrants love their adopted country and what they do to prove their love to judgmental nativists. Zuravleff does a masterful job of weaving in the xenophobic and anti-immigrant laws that America has passed and the way those laws impact all of us. This is not a “It’s a Small World After All” depiction of the life of immigrants in America but reflects the harsh impact of the early 20th century political climate which demanded immigrants took what came to them. Yelena’s American ending is not her parents, nor is it the one she dreams, but she is convinced it will be her children’s ending. And there is nothing more American than that.

– Caitlin Chiller, MATELA Past-President & Teacher Leadership Initiative Alumni