For reasons I still haven’t quite gotten to the bottom of, the summer I was fourteen my mother decided it would be tremendous fun to take a little mother-daughter trip. On a train. From London to Hong Kong.
Bear in mind that this was back in the pre-Glasnost Dark Ages. Reagan was in the White House. The Day After had just beamed its vision of post-nuclear civilization across America, scaring the beans out of everyone. The Iron Curtain didn’t even have a tiny speck of rust on it, yet our route would take us through Russia, across Siberia, Mongolia, and down through China. “It’ll be an adventure!” my mother assured me. “We’ll learn so much!”
Now, if two of you are going to travel by train for seven weeks through various countries you know virtually nothing about, you need a lot of books. Books for entertainment. Books for information. Books that tell you what to see, what to eat, what to avoid, what not to do.
Unfortunately, none of these books happened to mention the border procedures between Poland and Russia. First, because the great Proletarian Dream of the East did not include uniform train track widths, we were halted at a dreary, anonymous platform for four hours while the gauges on the train were changed to fit those of Mother Russia.
Second, a flurry of nurses arrived in long-skirted, tall-hatted uniforms straight out of the Crimean War. “Health papers!” they barked and then proceded to scrutinize our vaccination booklets with the scientific focus of microbiologists.
We were left on our own for quite some time. Outside the compartment window, a little show was going on. Groups of gray-uniformed soldiers arrived wearing various hats of varying heights. Hats, I was quickly learning, were a big deal in the East. Inside the train, I lolled on the couchette with Tar Baby, by Toni Morrison.
“What are you reading?” my mother asked and picked the book up to see. She frowned. “This seems very adult,” she said. I couldn’t believe she’d dragged me halfway around the world to a communist regime only to suddenly decide that it was a good time to police my reading habits, but before an argument could really get started between us, the carriage door slid open and the blunt nose of a machine-gun greeted us, followed by the even blunter face of a Russian soldier. He ogled the stack of books propped on the little compartment table, hoisted his gun straighter, and then he invited us outside on the platform, along with our books.
It’s awkward being the foreigner anywhere, but it’s especially uncomfortable when you are a foreign fourteen year-old surrounded by a group of Stalinesque soldiers with guns, some of whom have taken all your books and your mother away to an interrogation room for an East meets West chat. I tried to smile and broke into a sweat. “Where are you from?” one of the soldiers growled. “San Francisco,” I said, and the group broke out into approving murmurs.
They let me back on the train and some time later my mother reappeared, sweating herself from the load of books she was hauling, but no worse for the wear. “They only took a few,” she trilled, settling back into our compartment. Apparently, she was sat in front of a desk where a woman examined our books, then counter-checked the titles in a massive tome of state-approved and state-banned books.
The train let out a groan and creaked back into commission, and as we pulled away from the knot of guards I wondered what had happened to our books. Did someone secretly read them? Were they incinerated? Sold on the black market?
Who knows. My mother went back to writing in her journal and I returned to Tar Baby. Neither one of us said anything more about the experience. My mother never said anything again, either, about what I should or shouldn’t be reading. The USSR had taken care of that.