American Ending: A Novel

  • By Mary Kay Zuravleff
  • Blair
  • 320 pp.

A young woman seeks to transcend her Russian-immigrant family’s world.

American Ending: A Novel

Mary Kay Zuravleff’s American Ending follows Yelena Federoff, the first American-born child of Old Believer Russian Orthodox parents in a small Appalachian Pennsylvania town with a mine and a sizable immigrant population to work it. It’s a coming-of-age story about a young girl who starts off, in 1908, looking for her ending — rather than her beginning — in a nation harsh to immigrants and to Russians. Though it takes time to become immersed in Yelena’s world, the novel is a detailed, achingly realistic look at one family’s struggles within a largely unheard-of community.

From the very first line, Yelena identifies herself as American, not Russian. She wants out of the “endless cycle” of failure experienced by her compatriots on Russian Hill. An “epidemic,” this cycle includes quitting school to mine or getting married at 13 and having kid after kid without the means to feed them, while waiting for either alcoholism or the mine to eventually claim the men. Yelena, however, reads Russian fairytales, is a favorite of her teacher, and dreams of big cities, having a say and the vote, and using her coal pencil to “get away from the mines.”

Her mother tells her, “Pa is bent over pick, I’m bent over washboard, and you, my first American…you will be writing invitations, asking ladies to tea.” She often asks Yelena: “Russian ending or American ending?” then promptly adds, “Russian ending, everyone suffer.” An American ending, on the other hand, means something “cheery.”

Despite her smarts and big dreams, her declarations and judgments, Yelena, as is often the case in such stories, is trapped by her world and, yes, even herself. Her mother, although recognizing her daughter’s talents, forces the girl not only to leave school before sixth grade, but also to take care of her younger siblings, and then, once her older siblings have families of their own, those children, too. When Yelena is old enough (17), she is expected — like every other girl in the community — to marry the man her parents match her with.

While such a trajectory is realistic — it’s hard to escape the life we’re born into, either here in America or back in Russia — it’s difficult to identify with Yelena and to witness her repeatedly responding to the plot instead of driving it, which she almost never does.

Practically the first time this changes is when she chooses her own husband. (The 200-page wait for this act of assertiveness would’ve been more satisfying had it not been tied solely to a man and to Yelena’s desire not to “repeat” after her mother.) Yelena does take steps to better herself, but it comes too late; by marrying a Russian, she realizes that she’s effectively signed away her U.S. citizenship. This in itself is fascinating, as is her wondering where she belongs. I wanted to see a deeper exploration of these concepts and of Yelena’s fight for her identity as an American and a woman.

At the same time, the reader must keep in mind the very real challenges that immigrants, even ones born in America, face in transcending their lived experience and becoming fully American not only in word and deed, but in the ending they achieve — the much-coveted American Dream. This was (and is) particularly challenging for women, and it is challenging for Yelena, which Zuravleff ably portrays.

But what truly shines is the author’s ability to bring to life the plight of a long-lost Russian immigrant community, as well as her talent for providing intimate and vivid details of one family’s life, with all its hopes, dreams, loves, heartbreaks, and victories, however small. The historical and cultural details — the holidays and celebrations, the church traditions, the day-to-day tasks, and the mouth-watering Russian meals, which I recognized from my own family’s table — are wonderfully rendered.

The non-essential Russian words interspersed throughout the book, unfortunately, didn’t work for me. Sometimes, they were distracting and might confuse an American reader; other times, they didn’t make sense to me (as a native Russian speaker) in grammar or in context. It would have been far better for Zuravleff to stick to English or to have utilized an authenticity reader.

I appreciated, though, how she focuses on women in this story, on how they hold up each other, their men, and their community, and on how they strive to change their circumstances, no matter the odds, in order to get their American ending — and maybe beginning. It is women who ultimately triumph in this novel, including, in her quietly determined and true-to-her-time way, Yelena.

Originally from Moscow, Olesya Salnikova Gilmore is an historical and fantasy fiction author and lawyer living in Chicago. Her writing is inspired by Eastern European folklore and history. The Witch and the Tsar, her debut novel, is out now from ACE/Penguin Random House. Her essays and reviews have appeared in LitHub,, Historical Novels Review, Bookish, the Independent, and elsewhere.

Believe in what we do? Support the nonprofit Independent!
comments powered by Disqus