Execution, Forensics, Faith, and Saints: Getting to Know the Grand Duchess Maria


          My fascination with the Romanovs began in 1995, although it lay dormant for twenty years. In 1995 The New Yorker magazine published a piece on the forensic and DNA identification of the nine bodies found in a forest in the Urals near the Russian city of Ekaterinburg close to the boundary between Europe and Asia. In his article “The Last Romanov Mystery” author Robert K. Massie compellingly told the story of Tsar Nicholas and his family’s last night, their brutal execution, hasty burial, removal and reburial, and eventual exhumation and identification 73+ years later. The horrific and gripping details—bullets bouncing off the Grand Duchesses because they had sewn jewels into their corsets—made a lasting impression, as did the account of one of the daughters waking up from unconsciousness and crying out in pain amid the corpses of her family being loaded onto a truck. Compelling and grisly.  What impressed me the most was the author’s explanation of the scientific evidence in a detailed yet accessible manner which was comprehensible to laypersons like myself. I renewed my New Yorker subscription for several years based on the strength of this piece alone.

It was the history and science which interested me; I’ve never gone gaga over royalty. I’d had zero desire to see the 1997 animated film Anastasia which I knew would be romanticized drivel. Fast forward ~16 years.  At the time of my conversion to the Orthodox Church—a non-Russian jurisdiction I might add—my priest informed me that Tsar Nicholas and his family were saints, and I respectfully concealed my skepticism. It was only this past July, upon reading about the Feast Days for the Romanovs, that I began to understand why they were considered saints, and then I became completely captivated with the Grand Duchess Maria.


Grand Duchess Maria 1914.                           Photo from Wikimedia.

In Russia, the royal family is considered Passion-Bearers, those who face death in a Christ-like manner, although some recognize them also as martyrs. Whatever his flaws personal and political, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated for the good of his country; he choose to stay in Russia to share the suffering of his people. Later, when he tried to emigrate, it was too late. Fate slowly tightened around him and his family. (An example of an English passion-bearer is King Edward the Martyr.)


          One religious website describes the Grand Duchess Maria as having “the rare quality of being perfectly happy in any surroundings, even when the family was imprisoned in Tobolsk.” Because of this good nature, “she was chosen by her parents to accompany them when they were forced to separate from the family and embark upon their last fateful journey to Ekaterinburg” (Sheniloff). I took a special interest in Maria—I have a history of depression amidst life trials less challenging than the horrors of political imprisonment—and I set out to learn to the truth about the Grand Duchess. Was her good temperament actual, or a religious gloss? I had to know.  Thus began my quest into the Romanovs.


          Helen Rappaport’s The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg was as compelling as the original The New Yorker article. She devotes a chapter to each of the key players—the four daughters are combined in one chapter—and the reader learns about Tsaritsa (Empress) Alexandra’s genealogy as Queen Victoria’s granddaughter and her marriage to the Tsar; some reasons for Tsar Nicholas’ ineffective reign; the tremendous courage of the Doctor and other household servants who  accompanied the royal family; and why the family was executed at that point in time: the Czech army and the pro-monarchy White Russian army was advancing on Ekaterinburg and closing in three miles away. Rappaport confirms that third-daughter Maria “seemed easily contented with very little, having no complaints about the family’s quiet life [under arrest] in Tobolsk.”  The author also verifies that Maria was “patient” and “stoic,” a natural caregiver for her oft-indisposed mother and her hemophiliac brother Alexey, the heir.  She alone initially accompanied the Tsar and Tsaritsa as they were moved from Tobolsk to what would become their final prison and execution site, the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg (81).  [Tsarevich Alexey was ill and couldn’t travel, and the rest of the family joined them later.]  Rappaport also addresses in brief their 2000 canonization and the founding of the Church on the Blood at the execution site; her book is copywritten 2008, before the identification of the bodies of Alexey and Maria, who were buried separately from the main mass grave.

Of particular interest to religious readers will be Rappaport’s description of the family’s final liturgy, a service called the obednitsa, a shorter liturgy-without-communion typically offered to soldiers in the field. When the serving deacon came to the part of the service commemorating the dead—“ ‘With the saints give rest, O Christ, to the soul of your servant where there is neither pain, nor sorrow, nor suffering but life everlasting’ ”— he was compelled to chant rather than speak it, and the entire family “had all silently fallen to their knees” (162). They recognized their likely approaching death, and turned to God in their last days as they had throughout their entire lives.


The Church on the Blood (Ekaterinburg, Russia), the church built on the Romanovs’ execution site. Note the photos of the royal family posted on the church.                              Photo from Wikimedia

I remember being a little girl of 4 or 5 when my father compared me to Sesame Street’s Oscar-the-Grouch. It seems I’ve always been grumpy. Lately I’ve been thinking about Grand Duchess Maria. If she can be cheerful throughout house arrest, surely I can learn to stop complaining. An Atlantic article suggests that kindness is a muscle we can strengthen. Grand Duchess Maria is someone I aspire to emulate: I have recently taken Maria Nikolaevna Romanova as my patron saint.

To think it all started with a The New Yorker article.


Interesting Tidbits

  • New Yorker author Robert Massie  won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for his book Peter the Great: His Life and World.
  • Helen Rappaport  has also written a 2014 book about the Romanovs, The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra.

For Additional Reading

Maria Romanov: Grand Duchess Maria Niklaevna of Russia


Massie, Robert K. “The Last Romanov Mystery.” The New Yorker. Vol. No. August 21 & 28, 1995, p. 72 – 95.

Rappaport, Helen. The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg. N.Y.: St. Martin’s Press,  2008.

Sheniloff, Matushka Natalia. “Russia’s Crown Jewels: The Child-Martyrs.” Orthodox America [Newspaper]. Vol. XVI, No.6 (146), February1997, pp. 8 & 10. Posted online at http://www.serfes.org/royal/child-martyrs.htm


Snow White Meets True Grit


Catherynne M. Valente’s Six Gun Snow White is, as the title implies, a fractured fairy tale, a Snow White recast in the Western genre. The feminist elements are strong, but the best way to describe this fast-paced novel is Snow White meets True Grit. Consider their opening sentences:

               “I accept with equanimity that you will not credit me when I tell you Mr. H. married a Crow woman and had a baby with her round about the time he struck his fortune in the good blue, which is how folk used to designate Nevada silver. It don’t trouble me none if any soul calls me a liar.”


               “People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.”

Can you tell which is which?

If you’ve seen the 2010 film adaptation starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and the talented Hailee Steinfeld, you may recognize the opening voice-over of the movie as the opening paragraph from the 1968 Charles Portis novel, reproduced here in the latter paragraph above. Six Gun Snow White creates a stronger, harder Mattie Ross, a young woman who over the course of several years (instead of the few months’ journey of Portis’ book) travels from innocence to experience.


                 Snow White is a half-native woman whose mother was forcibly taken from her tribe and who died giving birth to Snow. The stepmother Mrs. H hates her for many reasons, not only for her beauty, but also her mixed heritage. Racism is real in this fairy tale, and Mrs. H tries to bleach her skin white by making Snow White bathe in milk.

Her gun Snow White calls Rose Red. The huntsman sent to track her is a Pinkerton detective. Her horse she has named Charming. The ‘dwarves’ are seven outlaw women living in a makeshift town in Montana Territory, outcasts from society who form their own ‘feminist collective’—not that they would ever call it that.

The first enchantment: a poisoned cigarette, and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation revives her.

The second enchantment: poisoned whiskey, and the gag-reflex saves her.

The third enchantment you will have to read for yourself, but it is entirely fitting if unexpected ending. No savior prince, as you might expect from this modern retelling, but a more-or-less happily-ever-after all the same.

The tone is flawless. The language is precise, perfect, heartbreaking. Snow White informs the reader that “a stepmother is like a bullet you can’t dig out” (38) and the outlaw ladies tell Snow, “Your past’s a private matter, sweetheart. You just keep it locked up in a box where it can’t hurt anyone” (105). The author maintains a breathtaking control of language.

When Snow White runs away, she thinks, “Fuck that mirror and fuck that house.” (67). I was surprised and delightfully shocked by the unexpected profanity; if the reader didn’t realize it before, this ain’t no fairy tale.

I am myself an emotional orphan, and Valente exquisitely expresses the longing for a mother who loves you. One of the outlaws tells Snow White: “You’re grown—crooked and backbent, but grown—and it’s time to stop hanging your heart on your mother” (111). [I cried here.]

The novel also captures the flavor of Native American folklore in the chapter titles such as “Snow White Secures Fire” and “Snow White’s Stepmother Gives Birth To The Sky.” At 153 pages, this is a quick read. Periodic illustrations by Charlie Bowater add to its appeal, and like a good children’s picture book, the illustrations collaborate with the text in telling the story.

Illustration by Charlie Bowater

Snow White cheats at cards. Illustration by Charlie Bowater

This a beautiful book, and every fairy-tale aficionado will want to read it.

The Janus Stone [Book Review]

Janus Stone

That I missed the first installment of the Ruth Galloway Crime series wasn’t a deterrent at all. In her follow-up The Janus Stone, Norfolk [England] police find a child’s body under a threshold at a demolition site and a cat skeleton elsewhere at the same location. What links the two sets of bones: headless. No skulls. An archaeological dig outside of town provides a nice counterpoint and plenty of information about Roman and Celtic burial rites and sacrifices. Janus is the two-faced Roman God, simultaneously looking forward and backward, the god of doorways and boundaries; once sacrifices were offered to him, buried under doorways. Hence the title. But the bones at the construction site are much more recent. Forensic archaeologist—bones expert—Ruth Galloway is called in to consult.

Part mystery/detective story with a healthy splash of soap opera, The Janus Stone is a fast, intelligent read. The relationship elements (which guy for Ruth? Police detective Nelson? Archaeologist Max? Druid Cathbad? A question complicated by her first-term unrevealed pregnancy. . .) are mostly dramatic seasoning and only occasionally stray into comedy/melodrama, as in the climactic scene when the three leading men all join forces to confront the villain.

The present-tense voice is fresh and the multiple characters’ viewpoints are expertly handled.  Griffiths portrays an England where Protestant/Catholic tensions and biases are still acknowledged, counterpointed by Ruth’s scientific agnosticism and Cathbad’s paganism, painted in wry humor. (“You don’t have to be religious to be Catholic,” Nelson claims at one point [45], and Ruth is disinterested in what she calls “the age-old struggle between Catholic and Protestant.” Although, she concedes, “Catholicism has nicer pictures” [79].) Priest Father Hennessey is portrayed sympathetically, which is to say as human.  Even Ruth’s staunchly Born-Again parents come around to compassionately accept her illegitimate pregnancy. It’s a nice balance, completely free of authorial bias.

Although Cathbad might be the most interesting character of the lot. Generally clad in purple druidic robes, he has an uncanny sixth-sense and susses out Ruth’s pregnancy—and the identity of the father—with an unexplainable intuition. In the penultimate dramatic scene, as Nelson and Cathbad are racing to rescue a kidnapped Ruth, Cathbad is preternaturally calm:

                        Nelson reaches forty miles an hour before he has backed out. . .but, beside him, Cathbad is calm and serene. He is the only person Nelson has met who is not terrified by his driving . . . . Nelson puts the siren on and they weave madly between lanes . . . [while] . . . Cathbad hums a Celtic folk song (292).

He even puts on a black shirt for the funeral which follows identification of the child’s body: none of the religious characters are caricatures.  It’s wonderfully refreshing.

Smart, humorous, and well-paced, with an appropriate and intriguing subplot (although again, the subplot veers toward soap operatic), The Janus Stone is a good read. The focus on relationship elements skews it more to a female audience, but it is nowhere near the romance genre and is firmly a female-oriented who-dunnit.

One quibble: no self-respecting druid would celebrate Imbolc on May 23, even if Cathbad does acknowledge that “the weather’s been so bad . . .I don’t expect Brigid will mind” (50).  I assume that the author is trying to tie [saint and/or goddess] Brigid’s threshold connections to Janus in order to provide thematic unity. As bloggist Jan Richardson reminds: “Brigid was known as a bridge-builder and a threshold figure, symbolized in the story that tells that her mother, Broicsech, gave birth to her as she crossed through the doorway into her house.” And despite my neo-pagan familiarity, I can’t actually confirm if pagans really do dance around a bonfire (so is it possible there is a touch of caricature—or merely that everyone loves bonfires?) but the inclusion of families and children at the bonfire was realistic.  Bonus: they didn’t dance ‘skyclad’ or as my friend would say ‘bucky tale nekkid’.

A strong, entertaining read.

The Secret Life of Children’s Books Set in New York City

            Although I grew up in Central New Jersey, a little over an hour from Manhattan, our family rarely went into New York. We saw the Statue of Liberty when I was young—so young that all I remember is climbing all those many stairs; afterwards, my parents stopped at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of one of the World Trade Center towers. My father, sightseeing in a t-shirt that warm summer day, was turned away from dining because he wasn’t wearing a tie. It was the 1970’s. Today my memories of 9/11 and the architectural marvel of the Twin Towers are mixed with the shame I felt upon seeing my father denied admittance.

Apart from that one visit to the Statue of Liberty and a crazy spontaneous trip to Rockefeller Center one Thanksgiving when I was in middle school, we didn’t go into New York. Everything I knew about New York I learned from Children’s books. These are some of my favorites:

house east 88 lyle

          Bernard Waber’s splendid Lyle, Lyle Crocodile features a lovable (yes: Lovable Lyle is another title in the series) crocodile who is more roommate or house-guest than pet. Crocodile or not, he has real personality. The illustrations in The House on East 88th Street recreates New York’s Upper East Side with a verisimilitude I didn’t recognize until I became an adult. Everything I know about New York brownstones I learned from Lyle.

Magic in the Park

          Ruth Chew’s 1972 Magic in the Park taught me everything I needed to know about city parks. (It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t Central Park as I’d long thought, but Prospect Park in Brooklyn.) The childhood parks of my suburban hometown lacked ravens, pigeons, lakes, and islands; a magical tree was no more fantastic that a park big enough to hold a lake!


          I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy of Jean Stafford’s 1968 Elephi, the Cat with the High IQ to re-read it and verify, so I can’t confirm if this is actually set in Manhattan or any quintessential city. Does it really matter? It feels like New York. One GoodReads reviewer confirms it is “full of 1960s NYC period details” while an Amazon reviewer claims “New Yorkers will love the book.” I absorbed its epic New York Cityness without even realizing it.  Today, as an adult, walking through my new hometown of Philadelphia, I’ll see cats surveying the world from curtained ledges above the street and think of Elephi. Regrettably, I assume this book is out of print since I’m having such difficulty finding it.

George Seldon’s classic 1960 The Cricket In Times Square? Meh. It was assigned reading in third or fourth grade.

            And trendy sophisticated Eloise (Kay Thompson, 1955) always seemed too entitled for my working-class tastes.

The Number One Best All-Time Children’s Book set in New York? From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler of course!

mixed up files

This 1967 E.L. Konigsburg book remains a classic. Its descriptions are so strong I still can see them 30 years later: the children pack clothes in the violin cases which act as their luggage when they run away from home. Every time I see a museum fountain with coins I want to wade in and gather up the money. And when I visit certain museums, I am still seized by the thought of crossing the red velvet rope to lie upon famous beds in bedroom exhibits.

All those authors brought New York to me.

secret life of pets

          A new story—a movie, a cartoon—recreates New York with the versimulitude of these books. The Secret Life of Pets is well plotted, entertaining, highly visual, even laugh-aloud funny for adults sans children. Best of all is the animated cityscape, beautiful, skillfully displayed. (I can’t comment on the sewers.) Someday a child-grown-up will recognize the Brooklyn Bridge and think “there’s that bridge from The Secret Life of Pets.” And that’s a good thing.

secret life pets bridge 2

          When you can’t get to New York, let New York come to you through books and film.


Book Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

A- as an magical alternate world with a fairy-tale feel. There aren’t enough girl ‘buddy’ stories: B+ as a good female friendship story. B- for plot: the teen protagonist seducing the mentor is questionable because real-world high school teachers would get fired for sleeping with a student (even if the student initiated it). A+ setting: the menacing forest and battles therein are fresh and original.


3 out of 5 stars.


The Blessing of the New Year

Here’s a Highlands New Year’s Blessing from the Carmina Gadelica. It’s traditional to say this poem “the first thing on the first day of the year.” (I’m a little late.)

"Camhanaich" by John McSporran.Creative Commons License. https://www.flickr.com/photos/127130111@N06/16477446765/in/photolist-r74dRK-pCvAqb-3vH1uX-742jEJ-5WoZyN-5WjHAx-jgcbLB-5NA2iD-59z2D5-5Wp1ao-5Wp1rN-idk3uu-quULh1-NtL9m-5NBxs8-3ujV2S-idket1-qpVmtD-dGi73e-qD5eAS-3gxPUj-6tnBKg-4fWSH4-pYVokH-teYUrb-6vk4bs-pVvZZS-8E7XxW-ifnC2R-dz925x-4f1gn3-CsoXck-8HAAKT-nkGcMA-axsW3e-nCbMGx-s8u7Rp-9dyfK4-4nsuoU-41wC45-4nsvnA-5Sqb6x-9dBg8b-9dBc5d-6cbe6Q-diHrH5-uJWiXq-APLtMP-qYDTsk-ASuxXP

“Camhanaich” by John McSporran via Flickr. Creative Commons License.  https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/


GOD, bless to me the new day,

Never vouchsafed to me before;

It is to bless Thine own presence

Thou hast given me this time, O God.


Bless Thou to me mine eye,

May mine eye bless all it sees;

I will bless my neighbor,

May my neighbor bless me.


God, give me a clean heart,

Let me not from sight of Thine eye;

Bless to me my children and my wife,

And bless to me my means and my cattle.


Happy New Year and many blessings for a brand new day: a new beginning every day.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale [Book Review]

“It was Christmas Day of that year and Dell Martin hovered at the double-glazed PVC window of his tidy home, conducting a survey of the bruised clouds and concluding that it might just snow; and if it did snow then someone would have to pay out.”

Not the first line, but it should be, of Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale.

Art by Angus R. Shamal used for the cover of the North American edition. From his website http://www.angusrshamal.com/graham-joyce-some-kind-of-fairy-tale/

Photo by Angus R. Shamal used for the cover of the North American edition. From his website http://www.angusrshamal.com/graham-joyce-some-kind-of-fairy-tale/

Twenty years ago, a daughter/sister/girlfriend went missing. No traces. Presumed dead or some other tragic end. If she was all right, she would have called. Even if she’d run away, she would have written. For twenty years her loved ones have been stifled by the inpenetrable grief of not-knowing.

Then Tara Martin reappears on Christmas, young and slight, looking not a day older, unable to account for her whereabouts. She makes up a story about traveling but eventually discloses her truth: she had spent time—in her mind only six months—with the fairies.

Doctors are brought in; dental records are checked. She meets with the local psychiatrist who explores amnesia, traumatic memory loss, and confabulation. Tara’s tales of the fairies’ sexual exploits are presumed to be projections of her own repressed self. But questions remain: Is the girl who she claims to be? Why hasn’t she aged?

This novel presents a deft handling of the faerie mythos. Set in “the deepest heart of England,” it is a welcome addition to modern Fairy Tale lore. Author Graham Joyce has a familiar knowledge of faerie story tropes and carries his premise to its logical conclusion: what would happen if someone today were taken to and returned from Faerie?

The clash of modernity with traditional folklore is accentuated by Graham’s frequent epigraphic references to the Bridget Cleary case. In 1895 near Tipperary, Ireland, twenty-six year old Bridget Cleary was burned and murdered by her husband and family who believed she was a changeling, a fairy imposter, a fairy in disguise. Ten of Bridget Cleary’s relatives and neighbors were tried for murder. To Graham, the Bridget Cleary case illustrates the ascendance of law and rationality over superstition.

Now, in his novel written and set over one hundred years later, he explores a parallel question: how would modern society respond if the folklore proved true?

A true gem for the faerie and fairy tale enthusiast.

Joyce, Graham. Some Kind of Fairy Tale. London: Orion Publishing, 2012.

Cover for the British edition (the edition I read.)

Cover for the British edition (the edition I read.)


Merry Christmas to all my readers.