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Originally published January 16, 2010 at 7:01 PM | Page modified January 19, 2010 at 3:14 PM

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Corrected version

Book review

'A Mountain of Crumbs': A Leningrad childhood during the Cold War

In "A Mountain of Crumbs," author Elena Gorokhova pens a memoir of growing up in the Soviet Union during the bleakest period of the Cold War.

Special to The Seattle Times

'A Mountain of Crumbs'

by Elena Gorokhova

Simon & Schuster, 320 pp., $26

In her memoir of growing up absurd in the Soviet Union of the 1960s and '70s, Elena Gorokhova recounts a childhood of precocious skepticism.

In her native Leningrad, the budding Elena can't share the earnest patriotism purveyed by her mother and grammar school teachers. She finds compulsory meetings of the Young Pioneers (the Soviet Girl Scouts) "dreary." She resists the prevailing Cold War xenophobia.

But being bawled out for writing a school paper about an American play presaged Gorokhova's future as an English teacher and author of this witty, illuminating book, written in the fluid English she polished after emigrating to the U.S. at age 24.

With telling detail, and a winning balance of affection, insight and satiric bite, in "A Mountain of Crumbs" Gorokhova portrays her colorful family circle and a bleak, repressively bureaucratic society that crushed much of the innate vibrancy out of the Russian people.

The book opens with a portrait of her remarkable mother, Galina,"a mirror image of my motherland: overbearing, protective, difficult to leave. Our house was the seat of the politburo, my mother its permanent chairman."

A doctor who toiled in primitive Russian field hospitals and later as an anatomy researcher, Galina lost two husbands and bore a daughter, Marina, before wedding a prosperous older man.

He nearly bolted when she insisted on having another child but soon adored their daughter Elena — with whom he formed a bond of great warmth and wry political disenchantment.

"A Mountain of Crumbs" also vividly recalls teen crushes, bucolic trips to the countryside, savored Russian foods and sister Marina's successful battle to become an actress — in defiance of the fiercely pragmatic Galina.

Elena's early rites of passage are similar to those of her American peers. But her circumstances are strikingly different. Her mounting desire to escape to a freer, more hopeful place is acute.

Encouraged by a writing workshop led by the late author Frank McCourt, Gorokhova began her memoir decades after settling in the U.S. and raising a family here. Readers can be glad that Russia remains in her bones, and her soul.

Misha Berson is the theater critic for The Seattle Times.

An earlier version of this story misquoted this passage from Elena Gorokhova's book: "a mirror image of my motherland: overbearing, protective, difficult to leave."

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