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Originally published Sunday, July 6, 2014 at 6:05 AM

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‘Snow in May’: hardy souls, hard lives in Russia’s Far East

Kseniya Melnik’s touching story collection “Snow in May” tells stories of the citizens of Magadan in the Far East of Russia, a region steeped in human tragedy but where everyday people have hopes and disappointments not unlike our own.

Special to The Seattle Times


“Snow in May”

by Kseniya Melnik

Henry Holt, 269 pp., $25

It might help to consult a map before reading the new short-story collection “Snow in May”by Kseniya Melnik, who sets her touching and sometimes heartbreaking tales of everyday people in the frigid, bleak and isolated Far East of Russia where she was born.

Recurring in Melnik’s stories, like a character hovering in the background, is the port city of Magadan, population 100,000. Situated on the cold Sea of Okhotsk, virtually unreachable by road or rail over the rugged permafrost terrain and closer to the North Pole than Russia’s capital city Moscow, it is the seat of the Kolyma region, better known as the gateway to Stalin’s forced-labor camps, the Gulags.

The region is so rich in grim 20th-century history, and in precious minerals like gold, that it’s easy to forget that real people with hopes, triumphs and disappointments not unlike our own live there.

They are hardy souls, to be sure.

Tracing both the Soviet and post-Cold war eras, these nine stories (plus a handy glossary of Russian terms at the end) elevate mundane events and gestures into epic tales of perseverance and hopeless ambition.

In “Love, Italian Style, or in Line for Bananas,” set in 1975, a dutiful wife, mother and museum curator from Magadan named Tanya plans a big shopping spree to buy gifts for her loved ones in Moscow after a business trip to St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad.

On the plane to Moscow, though, the humble Tanya encounters a dashing Italian soccer player who flirts with her and invites her to his hotel. The flattery stuns Tanya, as well as the other Russians seated nearby, who now stare at her “as though she were a chicken who had suddenly learned to fly,” Melnik writes. “Not once in her thirty-three years had she been paid such a compliment by a stranger. And from Italy — the birthplace of art and beauty. It was a miracle.”

But as with a lot of the seemingly promising scenarios that play out in “Snow in May,” the harsh realities of life in Russia always play the foil.

In “Closed Fracture,” a retired California businessman who grew up in Magadan traces his coming of age and adulthood through the once-tight but now estranged friendship with an old Russian buddy. It is an elegantly told study of how parallel lives suddenly veer in different directions.

“Kruchina,” a Russian word for the existential grief a woman feels for her lot in life, features an aging, nostalgic mother from Magadan named Masha, who visits her daughter Sveta in equally bleak North Dakota. There she struggles to come to terms with the fact that Sveta, who she married off to an American through a special agency thinking it was a wise thing for a good mother to do, isn’t her little girl anymore.

We get another lesson in love, Magadan-style, in “Our Upstairs Neighbor,” about a girl whose parents are separated, and who has a crush on the boy who lives in the apartment complex across from her. Intermingled are stories from elders about Russian’s turbulent past, adding a gravitas to would might have been a mere tale of teen longing.

Melnik, who moved to Alaska as a teen and now lives in Texas, is a young writer with extraordinary gifts. On second thought, maybe a map isn’t needed to appreciate where she’s from. These stories might be inspired by a place most of us have never heard of, but they come from straight the heart.

Tyrone Beason is a writer for Pacific Northwest magazine.

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