The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig

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You know how it is. You find a book at a young age and you read it over and over. Life moves on and you do too, and before you know it a decade or two has gone by without a re-reading. You find it on the shelf one dreary day, and start to read, and it is as if you’d last read it yesterday. Every phrase, every word is still familiar, and for the first time, you realize what a profound effect the book has had on your whole mental makeup.

Like all my favorite books, this one had an inauspicious introduction to my life. It was plopped on the table in front of me during a seventh grade “language arts” class taught by a singularly uninspired woman. The classroom had no windows. The class was right before lunch, so I always too hungry to pay attention. Because it was “language arts”–not, pray imagine, literature–there were a lot of feeble attempts at grammar lessons, which were wholly unfamiliar to us all and which I hated with the fire of a thousand suns.

In short, when this little book with its drab cover fell in front of me, I groaned.

But we have come to love each other, I and this little 1987 printing of a mid-century YA classic. Esther speaks to the darker recesses of my imagination. Snow. Wind. Cabins. Subsistence. It’s a great companion to the Little House books because it doesn’t sugar-coat the hardships, but still tells them in a voice a young person appreciates.

Esther and her family are deported from Poland to Siberia in 1941. For five years they eke out a meager living, and Esther grows up. Through poverty, war, and hateful oppression, she retains her enthusiasm for life and beauty. She worries about friends, boys, and school. She is proof that life goes on, even after the wreckage has been washed out to sea.

Several years ago, after several moves without having searched this book out for a re-read, I thought I had lost it. I felt sick. I ordered a replacement copy, one with Esther Rudomin’s photograph on the cover. Certainly it was a sexier volume, but it wasn’t mine. I am fetishistic about my favorite books. In the end, I found it again, and thank goodness.

Do give it a try. It’s a two-day read, and it has stayed with me forever. I see Esther Hautzig’s style echoed by my own; it sank that deep into my fibers.

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