Jazz with Ella: "Fast-moving" and "intriguing"

Jan 31, 2013 – Harbour Spiel

The Coast Reporter's Jan DeGrass is well-known to all of us for oher coverage of arts events up and down the Coast. She recently published her first novel, Jazz with Ella (Libros Libertad, 2012), set mostly during the summer of 1974.

Jennifer White is a young graduate student who is offered the opportunity to travel to the Soviet Union on a study tour. She will teach beginner's Russian to a group of students while her prickly professor, Dr. Chopyk, teaches the more advanced participants. The tour itinerary will take them all to Moscow, Leningrad and on a Volga River cruise.

This is the Soviet Union of the Brezhnev period, pre-glasnost. Hotel rooms and public dining rooms with hidden microphones, a sinister dezhurnaya or clerk on each floor of the hotel, lineups outside grocery stores, tour guides who control every moment and movement and the military in evidence everywhere – these form the backdrop of the novel.

On her arrival in Moscow, Jennifer finds long-lost family (or does she?). When the group travel on to Leningrad, she finds romance with the jazz-loving Volodya who keeps a tattered magazine photograph of Ella Fitzgerald in his wallet. He shows her a city redolent with history.

One of the most interesting scenes in the novel is when Volodya takes Jennifer to Piskaryovskaya Cemetery where mass graves of victims of the Siege of Leningrad are located. Half a million citizens perished during the 900-day siege, mostly from cold and starvation. It's in this cemetery, surrounded by dirge music emanating from loudspeakers mounted in trees, that Jennifer comes to understand what life in Leningrad means, then and in the present tense of the novel. There is both pride and despair in its history. And the deprivations of the siege still exist, in a way, though they take different forms. No wonder Volodya wants Jennifer's help to leave the Soviet Union.

For this is the central tension of the novel, its essential core. Is it possible to help not just Volodya but also the couple who insist they are her relatives? Who can be trusted? Several members of the students on Jennifer's study tour have their own secrets and agendas. (Maybe they all do.) At times the narrative is freighted a little too heavily with cloak-and-dagger subterfuge and a somewhat awkward back-story of marriage and family secrets. Rather than explaining Jennifer's motives and character, this material often detracts.

But the pace of Jazz with Ella is fast-moving, the story is intriguing, and the reader will come away with a vivid sense of what it was like to travel to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

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