DC at Night

DC at Night

Sunday, June 16, 2013

You Are One of Them

In 1982, young Samantha Smith of Maine wrote a letter to the newly appointed Prime Minister of the Soviet Union Yuri Andropov. In that letter, Smith wrote:

My name is Samantha Smith. I am ten years old. Congratulations on your new job. I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war. Are you going to vote to have a war or not? If you aren't please tell me how you are going to help to not have a war. This question you do not have to answer, but I would like to know why you want to conquer the world or at least our country. God made the world for us to live together in peace and not to fight.

Andropov answered, inviting Smith to Russia for a personal visit. Smith and her family made the trip. She became a young ambassador for peace until she died in a plane crash 3 years after writing the letter that made her famous.

In her new novel You Are One of Them author Elliott Holt, a life-long resident of the Washington, DC area, uses the Smith story to loosely inspire her tale of memory, betrayal, surveillance, and how we often define ourselves in relation to others.

Recently, Holt, who admitted to spending "almost all of my disposable income and a lot I don't have" in the noted DC bookstore, appeared at Politics and Prose to read from and discuss her new book. "I have been coming here ever since I was young," she said. of the homecoming-like event.

In her novel, Sarah Zuckerman and Jennifer Jones are best friends in an upscale part of Washington, D.C. in the politically charged 1980's.  Sarah is the product of an unhappy home: her father abandoned the family to return to his native England; her agoraphobic mother is obsessed with fears of nuclear war.  Jenny is an all-American girl who has seemingly perfect parents.  With Cold War rhetoric reaching a fever pitch in 1982, the ten-year-old girls write letters to Soviet premier Andropov asking for peace.  But only Jenny's letter receives a response, and Sarah is left behind when her friend accepts the Kremlin's invitation to visit the USSR and becomes an international media sensation.  The girls' icy relationship still hasn't thawed when Jenny and her parents die tragically in a plane crash in 1985.

Ten years later, Sarah is about to graduate from college when she receives a mysterious letter from Moscow suggesting that Jenny's death might have been a hoax.  She sets off to the former Soviet Union in search of the truth.

"Jennifer sees herself as a martyr who has been left," Holt said. "She begins fixated on friendship, but comes to understand that what is really important is her story, not her friend's story."

Holt said it wasn't surprising that her 1st novel dealt with the Soviet Union. "I grew up near the Soviet Embassy and I was always so curious about the Russians. And I was always worried about nuclear war. The threat used to be so tangible." Holt's fascination with Russia only increased when she spent time there when her mother worked in the country after the fall of the Berlin Wall. "I think I became a Russophile. I was tutored in Russian. I loved (Russian writer Anton) Chekov. My goal was to read his work in Russian. I was able to slowly do it, but I had a dictionary by my side,"she said.

After her engaging reading, several members of the audience commented on the poetic aspects of her prose. "Poetry is the greatest gift I ever received," said Holt, who admitted to writing her 1st really bad poem at age 5. She said she still picks a poem each week and then reads it every day for that week.

"I think I have a good ear as a reader. The writers I like best are those driven by voice and tone. I think most writers are readers first. I feel I will always be a better reader than writer," Holt said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
As she spoke from the lectern, Elliot Holt's young niece alternately stood, sat, and laid on the floor by her side. Holt said it was fitting that her niece be so close since she had lived with her and her mother as she finished her novel. Holt revealed a couple of things her niece had told her during the process. One time she asked, "Why do you have such a lonely job?" Another time she noticed that her aunt seemed somewhat depressed. "What's wrong?" she asked her aunt. "Don't you like the words in your book today?" Holt admitted that was the case. "Well, can't you change them," the niece simply, but brilliantly, responded.

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