The American Dream – a term used so loosely in recent years, that it is hard to capture its true essence. But the idea behind it remains the same; an offer of a land of freedom, a life of freedom, and emancipation from any hardships that came before. John Shallman’s Return From Siberia, released today, gives the reader the true story of John’s grandfather’s exile to Siberia, in an extraordinary story of his family’s incredible ancestry, and one that polarizes ideas of the American Dream in an intense rivalry of opinion between brothers. The Democratic political consultant, John, finds a 100-year-old manuscript belonging to his grandfather, and revolutionary, Joseph. The document is translated and presented in Return to Siberia as a tale of adventure, betrayal, love, and the immigrant experience. Not only is it an exhilarating read, but one that marks a time of political upheaval in Europe and in Russia, right before World War I. While a window into the family’s ancestry and life before, the novel also provides a new lens for looking at ideological debates around capitalism, socialism, and immigration, pertinent subjects that have current-day parallels with American politics and the social, philosophical questions it elicits.
Now, that seems like a lot to feature in a 256-page novel, but each thread is woven neatly throughout the story, and the bigger themes are introduced naturally with their connections to life today, and that of ancestors over a hundred years ago. John’s own work in the political campaign draws its parallels with his grandfather’s revolutionary politics. As a member of the Socialist Revolutionary party, one caught trying to escape the prison in which he was placed as a result, he was exiled for ten years to Siberia. As John operates in the political sphere of America today, he sees the grit, passion, and determination needed for immigrants seeking a better life across the border, and hopes to bring that to light on his trail. Working to better Mexican-American immigrant Patti’s chances at reaching congress, John is able to reflect on the values and motivations that Patti and his grandfather shared, in their determination to reach US soil, and reap all that it promises to offer.
As John’s family reads each newly translated chapter of their grandfather’s manuscript, the courage and determination of his spirit bleed into their own lives. The political ideologies beating in the heart of Europe’s upheaval make for incredible parallels with America today, and its own political landscape. Just as Joseph navigates his exile and the fallout from his revolutionary ideals and the actions of his party, John works tirelessly to help the electoral underdog. As Joseph yearns for his family across the sea, his great-granddaughter watches as her partner is deported. Joseph fights for labour rights in America, as John battles the fervour of those protecting gun rights today. Each philosophical or social debate in the current of Joseph’s incredible life still has a hook in an aspect of John’s and is reflected in how the America of today operates.
What both Joseph and John’s respective storylines – as interlocked as they are – show, is the fundamental precariousness of the life in limbo immigration can bring about. For Joseph and the people he encounters during his movement across Europe, Asia, and eventually, America, there is always the risk of having the rug pulled from under you, of being torn away from the people and places you love. This sense of risk and fear is not absent from the experiences of John’s contemporaries. In much the same way, the novel queries the integrity of the American Dream, and of the system that is built around it. As a concept, it means two very different things for brothers Max and Joseph, and this polarizes them in their life and legacy. Does that make either opinion right or wrong? For each of the people featured in Shallman’s narrative, the American Dream means something different, and each thread comes together to form the tapestry of not only their family but the human condition itself.
Return From Siberia is not just an ode to family, nor a love letter to freedom and democracy, but it is a story of the incredible endurance of an indomitable spirit. Across generations and oceans, the characters of Shallman’s true narrative are united by a shared sense of self and grounded in a great belief in the powers of family, courage, and love. Each of these aspects is fundamental to both the true American Dream and the immigrant experience. While the novel serves as an insightful glimpse into a turbulent historical period, it also serves as the perfect frame for issues as contemporary in the America of today, as they were in the Russia of yesterday.