As someone who already has an obsession with war correspondents, the bar for me to be personally invested in this story is much lower than most any other stories. With that being said, I have to admit that this book barely scratched the surface. In all brutal honesty, the historical footnote at the end of the book was much more interesting than the story itself.
To really break down my problems with this book, and there are quite a few, I must disclose a lot of information or spoilers. However, it is heavily based on fact, so how much am I really revealing?
Milly Bennet was a war correspondent through the early twentieth century. Living abroad for most of her professional life, Bennet covered the effects of Communism on China, Russia’s socialist shift, and the Spanish Civil War. Although Bennet always aimed to write truthfully or honestly, as Hemingway once said, her works were heavily censored or blocked by American journals. Since she could not support herself writing truthfully, she yielded to writing the communist propaganda for whatever side would pay her. From everything she wrote and everything she did, her true feelings about communism are as much of a mystery as most things during that time.
With that being said, her nature to follow communism around the globe showed that she believed in the idea and was waiting for a country to execute it correctly. I can only assume that as human nature polluted the practice each and every time, a swell of disappointment would arise. Although, she never did stop believing in its pure ideology. Years later, Bennet would attempt to resister with the Communist party. For some unknown reason, the political transaction failed to go through.
Of everything I just told you of Bennet’s life—the things she lived through, the scenes she saw, the stories she wrote—you would think that Callaghan had ample options to write an entertaining story from Bennet’s life. And your thoughts would be correct, there were many times and many places in Bennet’s life worthy of a novel, her time in the Soviet Union was not one of them. The years she spent in the U.S.S.R. were plagued by bouts of unemployment and fruitless pages. The censorships and restrictions put into place by Stalin are not new news and that is one of my biggest problems with Callaghan’s story. The entire focal point of this book was Stalin’s communism, as though there aren’t chapters and chapters dedicated to defining the difference between Lenin’s Communism and Stalin’s. It is all something we know and understand quite well, even if we chose to or not, months are dedicated to communism in history classes. So having to experience or learn what I already know about communism as the major feature in this book is not only redundant but boring. I know communism, so do many people, that’s not enough to write a story.
Then add on the fact that Bennet was less than productive in those years, there’s not much happening within the three-hundred or so pages. Which is a let-down, yes, but a monumental one after you read the blurb. Being packaged as this great adventure for an advocate in the USSR, Milly Bennet uses her pull as a news reporter to have her new husband released from Siberia’s prison camp. That is what I was promised and that is not what I got. Bennet’s new husband was arrested for his homosexuality and spent months in the prison camps. During that time, Bennet used what little resources she had to either release him or visit him. But at the end of the day, Bennet was stopped by roadblock after roadblock. Another sad yet predictable reality of the U.S.S.R. Bennet’s writings achieved nothing in rescuing her husband, nor was any of her work on the problem at the time ever published. There was no great avenging story when everything that happened was exactly as predicted. Bennet’s husband most likely died in the prison camp without record or care, as so many other family lines stopped there.
Last, but definitely not least of my problems with this book is it’s organization. The chapters go back-and-forth along the timeline, none of which seem to have a greater purpose for comprehension. One could achieve the same organization as it is now if they were to throw up all of the chapters in this book and let them fall to the floor. The chapters don’t end leaving questions about the past nor do the past segments provide answers about the future. The most telling chapter of this story was over a hundred pages in, years spent living into the U.S.S.R. and Callaghan writes a chapter of Bennet’s crossing from America. It provided the most characterization for her as well as insights into Bennet’s beliefs in Communism. But, of the entire book, I remember that chapter and the twenty-pages spent in the Spanish Civil War at the end of the book. The rest of it quickly flew out of my head. The organization of a book is just as important as the writing itself. There should be coordination of storylines and ideas. What was here was a poorly crafted mosaic, images everywhere with no larger picture coming to light.
After spending the time reading this book, I’d say you’d probably waste yours.