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Travis Review:

Today’s story is a heartbreaking tale of an orphaned nine year old boy that is worthy of Dickens. Vanka writes a letter to his grandfather. The story vacillates between the boy writing about his awful experiences a shoemaker’s apprentice and memories of his grandfather and the estate where he used to live. He had had a good life when his mother was alive as a servant and seemed to have been dotted after by a woman, Olga, who is presumably the wife or daughter of the wealthy family. Unfortunately for the boy, tragedy has struck hard as he was “transferred to the servants’ kitchen to be with his grandfather, and from the kitchen to the shoemaker’s in Moscow” after his mother’s death. So he went from a relatively decent life where he learned “to read and write, to count up to a hundred, and even to dance a quadrille” to a life with beatings and humiliations. “And yesterday I had a wigging. The master pulled me out into the yard by my hair, and whacked me with a boot-stretcher because I accidentally fell asleep while I was rocking their brat in the cradle.” It’s also a sad irony that the boy works for shoemaker, but does not own a pair of shoes. The saddest moment of all is when he drops the letter in the post, “To grandfather in the village.” Even after he adds his grandfather’s name without an exact address or postage, he might as well have put the message in a bottle and thrown it out to sea. The scene was both cute and tragic. I could be wrong, but I image the boy’s village is a long way away from Moscow and nobody will ever see the note except for a few postal employees who will chunk it in the trash.

Rating: 6

Steve Review:

Today’s tale is a tragic one that I can only assume played out with regular frequency in Chekhov’s Russia.  Reminiscent of the abuse suffered by Oliver Twist, I agree with Travis that this much condensed story is worthy of at least a nod to Dickens.  I wonder if Chekhov was a fan of Dickens as I can assume Russian translations were available given Tolstoy’s apparent praise.  The irony of being an apprentice to a shoemaker and having no shoes plays in to the idiom, “the cobbler’s children go unshod” although the original intent of this saying is meant to show commitment to customers over family.  Vanka enjoys none of those titles and is likely kept shoeless to ensure his faithful servitude.  I enjoyed the descriptions of the grandfather and made me long for similar stories, proposed in chronicle form, by my fellow critic (nudge nudge).  There’s nothing like a good story about the influence of a grandfather.  Vanka’s grandfather, with his “everlasting laughing face and drunken eyes”, was easy to picture making it possible to fabricate in the mind of the reader stories untold but possible given the caricature.  The stories were necessary relief to the tortuous present that Vanka endured.  We are left hoping for an empathetic postman but are left with the image of letters “carried about all over the earth in mailcarts with drunken drivers and ringing bells.”  Although he was nine, his story is particularly painful given the similar ages of my own children where I cringe at the thought of being so impoverished that giving them over as an apprentice in a far away land is the only hope.  It makes me want to take this story and turn it into a boy version of the Cinderella tale where everyone lives happily ever after.  In classic Chekhov style however, he leaves us hanging, alone, with Vanka and his dreams.

Rating: 7


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