November 22, 2017

Review | A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka by Lev Golinkin

Review | A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka by Lev GolinkinA Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir by Lev Golinkin
Publisher: Doubleday, November 2014
Pages: 307
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A compelling story of two intertwined journeys: a Jewish refugee family fleeing persecution and a young man seeking to reclaim a shattered past. In the twilight of the Cold War (the late 1980s), nine-year old Lev Golinkin and his family cross the Soviet border with only ten suitcases, $600, and the vague promise of help awaiting in Vienna. Years later, Lev, now an American adult, sets out to retrace his family's long trek, locate the strangers who fought for his freedom, and in the process, gain a future by understanding his past.

Lev Golinkin's memoir is the vivid, darkly comic, and poignant story of a young boy in the confusing and often chilling final decade of the Soviet Union. It's also the story of Lev Golinkin, the American man who finally confronts his buried past by returning to Austria and Eastern Europe to track down the strangers who made his escape possible . . . and say thank you. Written with biting, acerbic wit and emotional honesty in the vein of Gary Shteyngart, Jonathan Safran Foer, and David Bezmozgis, Golinkin's search for personal identity set against the relentless currents of history is more than a memoir—it's a portrait of a lost era. This is a thrilling tale of escape and survival, a deeply personal look at the life of a Jewish child caught in the last gasp of the Soviet Union, and a provocative investigation into the power of hatred and the search for belonging. Lev Golinkin achieves an amazing feat—and it marks the debut of a fiercely intelligent, defiant, and unforgettable new voice.

Moving is scary. The uprooting of the place called home usually strikes fear in all of us, subconsciously or otherwise. Especially kids. Especially when the home you’re leaving is in the Soviet Union.

Lev Golinkin’s A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka is a poignant, unexpectedly funny at times and terrifying at others, unique take on one of the more unspoken periods of modern history: the emigration of Jews from the U.S.S.R.

I knew life in the Soviet Union couldn’t have been easy, but Golinkin’s depiction of his Jewish upbringing and the struggles he and his family endured merely because of their ethnicity was heartbreaking. Golinkin’s narration was threaded with a sort of absence that children have when speaking of hard memories in their past. Instead of slowing down the narrative, it brought an emotional touch, a sense that the author was talking to me in real time instead of words on a page.

The first difficult part (buckle your seatbelts, there’s a few in this book) came when Lev and his family finally got permission to leave the country. The catch? They could only take two suitcases and some cash. Everything else, especially items of value, belonged to the country, not them. Their personal documents, including passports, transcripts, projects, writings – they were all to be left behind. If you didn’t, the border check would find them…and you didn’t want that.

So when Lev left his homeland, all he had was a backpack with a few changes of clothes, a small turtle carving, and a bear. Oh, those eight crates of vodka? Those were used as bribery to ensure the family’s safe passage out of the Soviet Union to Vienna.

All of these elements are fascinating on their own, but what tied them all together was Golinkin’s narration. It was personal, vivid, emotional and yet detached all at once. It had an authenticity that brought his past and his present search together into one cohesive book that I couldn’t put down.

A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka is a surprisingly refreshing yet emotional memoir of a harrowing escape and determined pursuit of the American dream. Golinkin’s work quickly became and still is one of my favorite nonfiction reads of the year.

4 Stars

Posted November 22, 2017 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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