Pamela Katz, Author
A love story, a thriller, a coming-of-age novel, and a page-turning odyssey of a far-flung family, On the Sickle’s Edge, the prequel to Neville Frankel’s acclaimed Bloodlines, is a multi-generational saga set in Russia, Latvia, South Africa, and the United States.
On the Sickle’s Edge is told through the voices of three rich and compelling characters: Lena, whose story begins in a Latvian village in 1898; Darya, Lena’s granddaughter, who narrates from Soviet-era Moscow; and Steven, a South African expatriate who grows up in Boston.
In Lena’s voice, the book flashes back to the Latvian village of Illuxt. Lena’s father, Isaak, emigrates to South Africa in order to escape conscription into the army of the Russian Empire. He saves enough to bring his wife Rivkah, two sons and young daughter to join him, but Rivkah dies in childbirth soon after arriving. Grieving and incapable of caring for his young children, Isaak returns to Latvia to find a new wife, but he is forced to leave his two teenage sons behind. With the loss of her mother and two brothers left in South Africa, Lena begins a life shadowed by absence and death.
Back in Latvia, Lena’s father remarries, but his dream of returning to South Africa is shattered. Caught up in the forced resettlement of Latvian Jews, the family joins thousands of refugees headed for Moscow. Convinced that their Jewish identity is at the root of the persecution rampant in their lives, Lena’s stepmother, Esther, argues that the family should deny their heritage and assume a false identity. Her husband reluctantly agrees to part with their savings — their final hope of returning to South Africa — in order to purchase forged identification papers.
On the Sickle’s Edge follows Lena as she grows from a quiet girl into a woman living amidst chaos and violence in Moscow. Lena leaves school early, going to work as a railway baggage hauler, and. shortly after the Russian Revolution, she falls in love with Vasily, a painter turned Communist organizer. While their daughter is still in diapers, Vasily vanishes, a victim of Stalin’s Great Purge. Once grown, tragedy befalls Lena’s daughter, as well, and in late middle age, Lena is called upon to raise yet another child: her spirited two-year-old granddaughter, Darya.
Darya’s voice narrates the next thread of the story, which takes place in the Soviet Union beginning in the 1960s. Intelligent and outspoken, she is a true Communist, set on making a valuable contribution to the People’s State. Her world is upended when Lena marks the occasion of her granddaughter’s first menstruation with an unsettling Jewish ritual and reveals the family’s history. As Darya enters journalism school, she becomes increasingly curious about her Jewish heritage — and increasingly disillusioned with the modern Communist State. Nevertheless, she decides to marry a charismatic and commanding older man, Grigory Yanov, a high-ranking member of the KGB. Darya’s hidden Jewish identity and subversive political ideas become increasingly dangerous.
In 1990, Darya crosses paths with her distant cousin Steven, when he visits the Russian relatives he’s only recently learned exist. In his voice, we learn about his lonely and confusing coming of age in Boston with his widowed father. When he travels to the Soviet Union, the distant cousins fall into an illicit love affair. As the USSR collapses around them, Darya’s husband, desperate to remain relevant in a changing world, turns on her and their children, placing them at risk. With no other alternative, Darya turns for help to Steven, an unlikely hero.
Steeped in Russian history and Jewish heritage, On the Sickle’s Edge explores the way that culture and identity thread their way through generations. A recurring motif in the book is a mysterious family heirloom — a teapot with hidden candlesticks and a goblet for celebrating the Sabbath. Readers will also notice a haunting resemblance between Frankel’s portrayal of Soviet political life and Putin’s Russia of today.
A sweeping and engrossing novel of family, love, secrets, and survival, Frankel’s novel will be enjoyed by readers who value a powerful helping of history with their fiction, such as the work of authors Anthony Doerr, Nicole Krauss and Kristin Hannah.
From Babushka Lena’s Epilogue, On the Sickle’s Edge
"This book is many things, and all of them awesome...This was a wonderfully absorbing story. For me, On the Sickle’s Edge also contained an element of “there but for the grace of G-d”. My mother’s parents emigrated to the U.S. from Western Russia probably around the time that Lena was born. They got out just in time. But this story could have been theirs, with all the calamities that followed.And the echoes to current events absolutely chill me to the bone."Marlene Harris,
"There was so much to learn in this book about the history of Jews in Russia, the evolution of Russia into the Soviet Union and back again, life in the Soviet Union for average citizens..."Lisa Sheppard,
"On the Sickle’s Edge is particularly powerful because it highlights the impact that global/political events have on real people, who often have no way of knowing what’s going to happen next or how badly they’ll be affected."Grace Troxel,
"A good historical novel takes you back to a time of some significance and conveys to you the spirit, as well as the history, of a particular era, all the while engaging you in the drama of several characters who illuminate different aspects and views of that time. However, a great historical novel also allows you to breathe and smell the air surrounding those characters, taste their food, feel what they’re feeling as they embrace one another, and transport you to that world, however different it might be from your own.“On the Sickle’s Edge” is a great historical novel. Not only does Neville Frankel, the author of this epic tale, highlight the terror and uncertainty through which so many Jews and non-Jews alike in the Soviet Union suffered during the twentieth century, but he does it by sharing with us in unsparing detail the day to dayness under which births and deaths, duplicity and revelations, and even romance transpired.For those looking to learn more about a dramatic and, at times, even brutal era during which their relatives might have lived and died, I highly recommend this book. For those looking just to learn more about a fascinating time in history that reverberates even today as Vladimir Putin works to increase his stronghold on what was once the Soviet Union, I also recommend it. And for those just looking for a great read, this will definitely fill the bill."Jill Greenberg
"In the hands of a masterful storyteller, On the Sickle's Edge pits the weight of an oppressive regime against individual tenacity and profound personal courage. Inspired by Frankel's own family history, this multi-generational epic holds up a mirror to a universal truth: all immigrants face the powerful tension between assimilation and cultural identity. We have—all of us—lived life on the edge of the sickle.—Rabbi Andrew Baker, Director of International Jewish Affairs, American Jewish Committee "Rabbi Andrew Baker,