Book Review: Gale Sears; The Silence of God
The Silence of God
By: Gale Sears
Published: June 15th, 2010
Hardcover: 400 pages
I’ve been waiting since mid June for The Silence of God to finally become available on Kindle. Every time I’ve entered the BYU bookstore I’ve eyed it with great interest. I will be serving my mission in Russia and so of course Russia is of particular interest these days. I also took a course on Early Russian History a few years ago which focused on Russian Literature along with Primary source letters written to the Tsars by Peasants and other petitioners. The course went right up to the events of the Russian Revolution and we spent a lot of time looking at the build up and social ferment for the revolt. I have long therefore been fascinated by the particular period described by Gale Sears in her new work of Historical Fiction.
Sears story focuses on the Lindolf Family. The Lindolfs were the only Latter Day-Saint family known in Russia during the time of the Bolshevik Revolution. Specifically, the story focuses on one of the Lindolf daughters Agnes and a fictional best friend named Natasha Ivanovna Gavrilova. Natasha is a devoted Bolshevik and daughter of a well-known professor. The story looks at the tension between Agnes’ faith and the ideals of the secular soviet state that emerged. Most of the story actually centers of Natasha’s crisis of faith as she is challenged by a copy of James Talmadge’s Articles of Faith given to her by Agnes’ father.
I purchased the book this afternoon and basically read it in one sitting. It is a very readable work filled with (some) well-developed characters and lots of great historical details. I certainly recommend it as work of Latter Day Saint Fiction that does not shy away from difficult emotional situations. Some of the scenes are heartbreaking and the fates of characters you love and care about do not always end up for the better. This is a rather bleak novel at times, as characters prayers go unanswered and tragedy is heavy (though hardly as bleak as real events perhaps would dictate). Yet, this is also a work of incredible faith through the most difficult times. The Lindlof family is kept alive through unspeakable tragedy due to their deep devotion to God. I loved that Sears portrays faith as deeply impacting the lives of her religious characters. The outward manifestations of faith are apparent: The Lindlof’s administer blessings when faced with hardship or sickness, while her Russian Orthodox characters cross themselves. Perhaps more importantly, her characters speak a language of faith, which permeates their dialogue. This is a quality often missing in novels written by secular authors and it was much appreciated.
The characters of Agnes and Natasha are particularly well developed. Natasha’s inner thoughts as she struggles between disbelief and the possibility of a forbidden faith are vivid and well illustrated. Additionally, some of the other characters turn out to be more rounded than one would first expect. Natasha’s parents, for instance, appear at first to be simple caricatures of faith versus reason, but both display a very human depth at various parts of the novel.
Intellectually, the book presents interesting questions about the ideal society. Sears shows the passionate appeal of Soviet ideals as she presents impoverished peasant conditions contrasted with the opulence of the Romanovs. About midway through the Book, a house that had been lived in by Lindlofs is given to four impoverished families to live in. It is clear that there is something unjust about such an unequal wealth distribution. Yet, Agne’s father also powerfully argues that the revolution and its ideals are bound to fail because “You cannot change a man’s nature or behavior by outside means. There must be a change of man’s heart, and only God can do that.” We see examples of this as Sears describes corrupt Bolshevik officials getting personal gain through the confiscation of the property of the wealthy. Yet, while Sears clearly rejects the Soviet ideology and even has one of her characters describe it as counter to the will of an Apostle, she allows us to feel its intellectual vibrancy and to understand its appeal. This is quite an accomplishment for an LDS author.
Yet, the book is not without its flaws. The facts of the Lindlof’s story would have been fascinating in and of itself, but Sears feels it necessary to insert the Lindolf characters into every conceivable event of Russian history in the period. Early on, one of the sons is injured in the events of Bloody Sunday. After that, two of her sons fight in the Russian army and desert right before the final defeat of the Russian army. Still later, the family happens to be present in Yekaterinburg right as the Tsar and his family is brutally murdered. Sears twists the real life history of this family to put them conveniently in the path of historical events. Also, several worthwhile historical events in the lives of the family such as repeated visits from Swedish mission presidents to the family are left out of the novel. The novel thus focuses on grand historical events at the expensive of authentic events that could have given it more character.
Additonally, Sears is not content with real life drama and so structures very contrived plot devices. For instance, when Agnes and her family is in trouble, she leaves Natasha with a series of riddles, which lead her on a treasure hunt across Petrograd/ St. Petersburg. These devices strain credulity and are likely unnecessary.
More significantly, Natasha’s intellectual struggle, while mostly gripping, is also a bit contrived and convenient. She is able to interact with Soviet leaders such as Trotsky and to be such a renowned propaganda writer that she gets invited on a Red Train, ( Train that went throughout the countryside spreading soviet ideals) but also susceptible to the impact of a single book and a single powerful idea from Mr. Lindlof. While her high profile position certainly makes things more interested and lends itself to certain plot devices, it takes away somewhat from the credibility of what we are reading.
Ultimately, I think that Sears would have created an even tighter and more powerful novel if she stuck closer to historical fact. Her contrived situations make the powerful intellectual and emotional conversion she describes feel less than real. It is a shame, because Sears really gets the inner intellectual struggle of someone considering the God for the first time in a very difficult and unwelcoming setting. Her well developed characters deserve better than such artifice. Yet, the book is still a very worthwhile look into an incredible family and a period of history that often is misunderstood and underappreciated.