Book Review: Waiting for Stalin to Die

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Waiting for Stalin to Die

May was Short Story Month, and while I didn’t consciously read any short story collections at the start of the month, Waiting for Stalin to Die could kind of be slotted in here, maybe. Although classified as a novel, Waiting for Stalin to Die is four separate and distinct stories, but all connect together (quite beautifully) at the end. So we could play around with the “short story” idea for it here. Well, at least I did.

Thank you to Guernica Editions for sending Waiting for Stalin to Die . For some reason, it was one I would pick up, thinking I wanted to read it, and then putting it down. I would pick it back up, but then replace it with another read. After a gentle nudge or two from the publisher and thinking I could give a nod to the “Short Story Month” theme, I finally picked it up for real and good this time. Seriously, why did I keep putting this one down for others? Once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down!

The stories of Vytas, Maryte, Justine and Father Geras were so wonderfully rich and heartbreakingly compelling. They share their individual stories sharing why they have fled Lithuania and come to Toronto, beginning with Vytas in 1949.  Each of their stories share their painful longing for home, to return. But as long as the clutch of communism chokes Lithuania, they must remain in Canada. Each left family, their lives and loves and hopes and dreams behind and here in Toronto they struggle to find their place all while unwillingly parting with those hopes, dreams and loves from the past.

“He dreams of Vilnius. Night after night he dreams of the city which he left, though he did not wish to.”

Each quietly take in the distaste, dislike and ignorant opinions from the Canadians they are forced to depend upon for shelter and safety. One cannot help when reading to realize this great country we live in, how we’ve never ever had to deal with personal tragedy or have histories like those seeking refuge here.

“You people,” she said. “You stick together.”

“You don’t scare me,” she said, glaring up at him. “You’re all the same. Dirty foreigners.”

“He almost hit her, this Canadian woman who understood nothing. No soldiers with bayonets would ever enter her kitchen, giving her twenty minutes to prepare for a journey to Siberia. She would never have to beg for permission to take a quilt. She would never be pushed roughly out. Living in a country that would never be invaded, she would never be forced to leave.

“You have everything,” he said, meaning just not the house, but freedom, prosperity and safety. “Why so mean?”

Justine shares a similar experience to Stepanos (above) when she is on her way to a piano audition:

“Walking to the streetcar, passing houses resting side by side, their verandas offering shelter, Justine felt the peacefulness. No bombs fell here. Nothing catastrophic occurred, nothing but daily life.”

And finally, we have Father Geras, with his overwhelming concern to protect his flock displaced, and knowing they will never be able to return. What will happen to the elderly that will die far away from their home? Father Geras feels an overwhelming need to ensure they will have a shared place, to make it as close of a community as they can have here in this new and foreign land they must call home now.

“A flock which needed shepherding. A culture which needed protecting. A homeland which needed freeing. And bending to his food, he was determined to find a way.”

This was what made for such powerful reading – their collective longing for home, this great, great loss of home, this desperate desire to return. It was so powerful – I was overcome for their sorrow and sadness at leaving so very much behind – everyone – their families, their way of life, their loves and life. How horrible it must be to be forced to leave that to seek safety and freedom, only to be met with disregard, distrust and dislike. We need to be better, we need to have better understanding and patience.

The ending, where their stories and lives come together, is a very special one and I loved how it joined altogether. For some, their story never does end with a happily ever after ending, in their hearts they will always long for Lithuania and their lost lives there, what they sacrificed to leave. Waiting for Stalin to Die is a highly recommended read. It is incredibly moving and filled with rich and wonderful people with stories that need to be heard and understood.