This first novel from longtime progressive activist Shelley Ettinger is a multigenerational saga that begins in Kishinev, circa 1903, during a massive Easter Monday pogrom that leaves one member of the Resnikoff family dead and the rest shaken and horrified. That’s the gripping opening to Vera’s Will (Hamilton Stone Editions, $16.95), vividly detailing the anti-Semitism then endemic throughout the region. What’s more, the post-riot divisions within the Resnikoff family — whether to leave the Pale of Settlement for the presumed safety of America or stay in Russia and work for revolution — are beautifully presented.
Most of the book takes place in the U.S. after the relocation, and follows school-aged Vitka — renamed Vera by Ellis Island officials — as she and her parents and siblings struggle to assimilate. The narrative subsequently sweeps through the 20th century and weaves the personal and political coming-of-age of Randy Steiner, Vera’s granddaughter, into the slow unfolding of her grandmother’s life story.
Sexuality, and the fact that both Randy and Vera are lesbians, looms large, and distinguishes Vera’s Will from other novels — or even memoirs — about the challenges of displacement. Ettinger skillfully depicts the hardships that women and men “in the life” had to endure before the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion opened the door to a more liberatory politic.
This, of course, came too late for Vera, who ended up marrying a man she didn’t love, bearing two children, and then losing custody of them once she was outed. Her attempt to win her children and grandchildren’s affection in the aftermath of being cast aside forms the crux of the tale, and it is poignant, maddening and evocative. One particularly jarring scene involves Vera’s abrasive husband’s ultimatum: He will pay her rent and other bills, but in exchange he will allow her only a few hours each month with her offspring. It’s a take-it-or-leave-it deal, and readers are made to understand the limited choices lesbians had in this restrictive era. Indeed, Vera’s life is a tragedy writ large, but Ettinger nonetheless gives us a character full of vim, a survivor who crafts a fulfilling, if limited, life. Vera finds work as a bookkeeper, makes platonic friends, and does what she can for herself and others. In palpable fear that her “secret” will be discovered by her boss, landlord, and co-workers, Vera decides to live modestly, avoiding unnecessary risks.
In contrast, granddaughter Randy attends her hometown’s annual gay pride parade and becomes an outspoken organizer against heterosexism and homophobia. The juxtaposition is stark.
Vera’s Will celebrates the evolving social mores that have led to the recent mainstreaming of LGBTQ issues. At the same time, Randy argues that this is not enough. To her credit, Ettinger makes Randy multi-dimensional, and she never sounds preachy or didactic as she links classism, racism and sexism to LGBTQ rights. A foil for her beloved grandmother, she remains a dynamic symbol of progress.
Vera’s Will not only tells a searing story, but also a thoughtful and inspiring one. Indeed, it’s a book whose characters will pop into your head, tug at your psyche, and demand that you choose sides. Unlike Randy, Vera was no activist, but her deepest desire was to live authentically. Her inability to do so is a grim reminder of a time that should be firmly relegated to history.
Eleanor J. Bader is a Brooklyn-based teacher and award-winning journalist who writes for Truthout.org, RHRealityCheck.org, Theasy.com and other progressive, feminist blogs and print publications.