Growing up in the Soviet Union, Elena Gorokhova led two lives: the public life of obedience to government dictates, and the life of secrets she locked inside herself like “precious logs of Hungarian salami.” With A Mountain of Crumbs (Simon & Schuster, $26), Gorokhova, who has lived in New Jersey for the last 30 years, revisits her suffocating childhood in postwar Russia, unlocking those secrets in vivid, captivating prose.
Unlike Angela’s Ashes, to which it is often compared, A Mountain of Crumbs is not about an impoverished family. Rather it is the story of an impoverished society, where people slump beneath the gray ordinariness of their lives, finding relief only in small adventures and harmless temptations.
Gorokhova infuses remarkable color into this bleak landscape. The Ridgewood resident describes her native Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) as “a grandiose ruin hermetically sealed from the rest of the world.” Russia itself is like a bus at rush hour: “You can’t breathe, you can’t move, and you can’t squeeze your way to the door to get out.”
Gorokhova’s way out was her early mastery of English, which fueled her fertile imagination with its mysterious allure and appealing sounds. English also gave her the connections with the West that led to her immigration to America at the age of 24 and, ultimately, this absorbing memoir.