________________ CM . . . . Volume I Number IV . . . . July 7, 1995

Tchaikovsky Discovers America

Kalman, Esther
Toronto: Lester Publishing, 1994
40pp, hard-cover, $16.95
ISBN 1-895555-82-5

Subject Headings:
Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilich, 1840-1893-Journey-United States-Juvenile fiction.
Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilich, 1840-1893-Fiction.
Russian Americans-Fiction.

Grades 4 - 6 / Ages 9 - 11.
Review by T.S. Casaubon


Later, as I walked along the promenade [at Niagara Falls], I heard a voice behind me. It was Mr. Tchaikovsky, but I could barely make out what he was saying through the crashing of the falls and the noise of the vendors trying to sell us picture postcards and other souvenirs. In my loudest voice I asked Mr. Tchaikovsky if he wanted to buy something to press in his diary to remind him of his trip. But he said that he had no need of mementos, that his words alone would form the memories that would be pressed between the covers. "When I read my diary back in Russia," he said, "I shall remember the sights and the sounds and the smells of America. But here in America, I am remembering Russia."

Deservedly listed among the "Notables" of the last year, Tchaikovsky Discovers America is a follow-up to the successful Beethoven Lives Upstairs. Both books are published to accompany recordings from Susan Hammond's Classical Kids series; introductions to great music by looking their composers from a very personal and human angle. Obviously the book can't contain the music, but the triumph of Tchaikovsky Discovers America is that while it recalls the music, and might even inspire a reader to seek it out, it lives on its own.

Kalman based the story on Tchaikovsky's actual 1891 visit to America to attend the opening of Carnegie Hall. The composer kept a diary of his visit, and it is this diary that inspires eleven-year-old Jenny Petroff to keep one of her own, which she begins with her account of how she came to know the great man.

Jenny is an American, but her family is from Russia, where her father was a count; in America, however, he has made his fortune running a railroad. So Jenny is not quite the ordinary person she feels in Tchaikovsky's presence, but her background does give her the chance meet him on the train, one of the wonders of the New World he admires, ("this train! There is even a barbershop on the train!"), and, because she speaks Russian, to become his friend.

Of course, the great man touches Jenny's family too, who have lost not only a title, but Russia itself. When Tchaikovsky conducts at Carnegie Hall, Jenny's mother cries because the music is so Russian; after he meets the composer, her father pines for the scent of lilac and the fields of yellow flowers. "I did not know that grown-ups could get homesick," Jenny writes. "I thought about the fields of yellow flowers and, although I have never seen them, it was as if I remembered them too."

In many ways, the book is a meditation on loss: meeting Tchaikovsky lets Jenny understand her family's loss; talking to him and hearing his music brings out Jenny's desire to be a ballerina, which she is already too old to become; there are reminders of the composer's age ("but when he stood up to conduct he was like a young man again"), suggestive of the death that will come only two years after this visit to America. And making friends with the great man is itself a gift that can only lead to the loss -- the parting that closes the story:

Today Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, my friend,
sails away from New York back to Russia.
He is the first person I have written about in my diary.
I wonder if he has put me in his.

But if Jenny learns about loss and sadness, she also learns the gifts they can carry of music and memory.

The fourteen colour illustrations, by husband-and-wife team Laura Fernandez and Rick Jacobson, are excellent, and surprising in their variety: intimate domestic scenes, vistas of Russia, a vision from Swan Lake; and two great dark, dramatic spreads -- one of Tchaikovsky conducting at Carnegie Hall, and one of him taking leave of his friend Jenny in front of the tremendous, smoking train that brought them together.

Highly Recommended.

T.S. Casaubon is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © 1998 the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364