Esther Bradley-DeTally has had adventures most of us will never undertake, nor would we want to. On a whim and a (literal) prayer, Esther and her husband Bill lived in Russia in the early 1990’s, for several months at a time, as missionaries of the Baha’i Faith.
Bradley-DeTally’s Without a Net isn’t about the Faith, however. It’s about Russia’s people—how they were affected by the unstable politics of the time, and how a hard life cannot extinguish generosity and hope.
Bradley-DeTally is a writing teacher, and from the style of her prose my guess is the book contains her entries from a journal she kept while in Russia. For this reason the essays are not just personal, but very present. She sometimes mentions a name of someone we’re not sure we know, as though she doesn’t expect to show her writing to anyone. It makes us feel like we’re reading her diary and brings us closer to her experience. She often starts an essay with the setting, describing the room she’s in, its drab walls, the cold winter light coming through the window, the hot plate, the rickety table, the bitter cold despite layers of clothing. Surely it’s not always winter in Russia, but it feels like that to a west coast woman, and the reader feels the cold through Bradley-DeTally’s words.
We also feel the author’s earnest love and respect for the Russian people, whether they join the Faith or not. In fact, although her faith is obviously of profound importance to her, if you want to know about it you’ll have to read about it elsewhere. Bradley-DeTally puts a short, explanatory blurb at the end of the book, but it doesn’t go into much detail.
An early entry has Esther and Bill on their hands and knees, scrubbing an insect-infested room where they are to stay. Horrified, they scrub from top to bottom. The implication is that some Russians at the time lived in such conditions. (Do they still?) Another story is about bribing a hotel owner, apparently nothing unusual, but our heroes aren’t aware it’s expected of them. The mix-up caused by their ignorance of customs grows to almost serious proportions.
The real story, though, is the people. Esther and Bill didn’t have a lot of money. They were called, they went, they made friends. Their new friends introduced them around, fed them, and sheltered them. They had little to share, but that didn’t stop them from sharing.
“Two words we notice are ‘variant’ for choice, and ‘deficit’ to indicate a lack of goods. Everything is deficit, but the people are resourceful and think of many variants.”
Living under the thumb of the government and KGB was probably worse than the “deficits.” In the city of Donetsk, Esther and Bill…
“…stumbled around dark, potholed streets, into buildings that sometimes had only one hallway light for all eleven floors. Lightbulbs were scarce…jokes flew about the KGB and phone lines. Repression seemed more obvious…Yet, everyone we met threw open their homes and hearts to us without reservations.”
Deprivation vs. welcome is a theme of Without a Net. The book peeks into the lives of Russian citizens as the Russian Federation was coming into being: inflation, alcoholism, denial of the Chernobyl tragedy and more, all setting the scene of a tough life. Perhaps Bradley-Detally’s view of those days can give us insight now, as the Russian and Ukrainian people struggle through even more upheaval.
Initially Bradley-DeTally doesn’t want to go to Russia, nor does she want to return later when she and Bill make a second trip. “It’s very hard to do this,” she says. But, “what I’ve discovered is that I love these people.” And it’s clear she goes because she feels called.
Petrea Burchard is a Pasadena photographer, blogger, actress, voice-over talent and author. Her story “Portraits” is included in Literary Pasadena (Prospect Park Books, 2013). She contributes book reviews to Hometown Pasadena, for which we and our readers are very grateful. Find more Petrea doings, writings, and photography at PetreaBurchard.com and LivingVicuriously.
Camelot & Vine can be bought locally at Vroman’s, the Pasadena Museum of History, Webster’s Fine Stationers in Altadena and the Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeeshop. The ebook version is available for Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Kobo, Diesel, Smashwords, and the Sony eReader.