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Olga’s Story
by Stephanie Williams
Doubleday Canada
351 pages, $35.95

Reviewed by Joe Wiebe
posted July 31, 2005

Now in her mid-50s, Stephanie Williams grew up listening to her grandmother Olga’s stories about her own childhood in Siberia where her family lived in a comfortable estate on the border between Imperial Russia and Mongolia. The stories were woven with fabulous characters seemingly lifted from a Tolstoy novel—superstitious peasant servants, Cossack bodyguards, brothers who fought for the last Czar, and Olga’s father Semyon, a self-made merchant whose camel caravans travelled back and forth to China and the Russian Far East. But when the Bolshevik Revolution sent that life into chaos, Olga was forced to flee to safety in China, and never saw her family again.

Olga died in 1974, and though her granddaughter often speculated about her stories, the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain kept her from finding out if those stories were true, or if there was more to be known.

When the Berlin Wall came down and Perestroika led to the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., Williams, by then an established journalist and writer living in London, revived her interest in her grandmother. In 1994, she travelled to Siberia in spite of warnings from Russian friends in London who said her search would be fruitless, and, more ominously, dangerous. But in Irkutsk, the capital of Siberia, Williams made an incredible discovery: in response to an ad she’d placed in the newspaper, a woman named Lydia called, identifying herself as a granddaughter of Olga’s older sister Lydia, which meant she was Williams’ second cousin.

At first, Lydia was reticent, still fearful of the repercussions of making contact with a foreign relative; after all, under the Soviet system, having a relative abroad in an “enemy” nation like Great Britain was a capital crime. But what she did tell Stephanie was enough to open the floodgates. Williams spent the next ten years researching her grandmother Olga’s life story, and what she learned was even more spectacular than she might have imagined when she began.

The resulting book, Olga’s Story, is mesmerizing. Though she originally intended to write a sort of travelogue of her search for Olga, Williams chose to exclude herself from the story (apart from the Prologue and Epilogue, where she outlines the story of her research), and wrote it in the style of a historical novel. This decision is what makes this book truly exceptional. Especially in the first half, which is focused on Olga’s childhood in Siberia, the level of detail in the description is staggering, but at the same time, Williams handles the reins of the story with finesse. The result is a true page-turner—part epic Russian Romance, part swashbuckling adventure yarn.

Over and over again, I had to remind myself that this was a true story, meticulously pieced together from a wide range of research conducted over the course of a decade. And the primary subject of this book was long dead, having kept most of her life’s story a secret that she carried with her to her grave. Even worse, after Olga’s death, her husband, Fred, perhaps following her prescribed wishes, burned almost all of her papers, photos, albums, and letters. I can just imagine how the author must have lamented that invaluable loss as she came to dead end after dead end in her quest. But perhaps it was all for the better—the book clearly benefited from the mountain of research and work Williams put into it.

In spite of all of these superlatives, I have to acknowledge that the book loses some of its dazzle in the sections describing Olga’s life after her escape from Russia. She still had plenty of adventures, including living through the Japanese invasion of China in the late 1930s, making a life for herself and her daughter Irina in Victoria, BC, during World War Two while her husband was interned in Shanghai, and then getting caught up in the Communist Revolution in China following World War Two. But the heart of this story is the Siberian section, which Williams clearly spent most of her time and energy on. The rest of the book feels rushed at times, and occasionally reads like a transcribed diary.

The book’s subtitle—"One Woman’s Epic Journey Through the Twentieth Century"—makes an important point. Born in 1900, Olga witnessed some of the Twentieth Century’s most important historical events from the inside. That alone might be reason enough for many to want to read this book, but the quality of Stephanie Williams’ storytelling makes this history lesson a true pleasure as well.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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