Beginning his account with a daring escape from 1919 Russia to Constantinople, Alexandrov (Slavic Languages and Literature/Yale Univ.; Limits to Interpretation: The Meanings of Anna Karenina, 2004, etc.) promises a wild life of intrigue, deception and beating the odds for his subject.
Immediately following Frederick Bruce Thomas’ arrival in Turkey as a refugee without a country, the author moves back to the 1870s to examine Thomas’ childhood as the son of freed slaves in Mississippi. Though his parents were successful farmers and businesspeople after the end of the Civil War, rampant racism made life difficult, and Thomas left shortly after his father’s death. He made his way to Chicago and New York and in both cities took jobs in what Alexandrov calls “the elegant service industry,” gaining experience in the hospitality trade. After leaving New York, he traveled through Europe, continuing to work in the industry until he finally made his way to Russia and settled there. He eventually built his own entertainment empire in Moscow, becoming a rich man in an environment mostly free of racial prejudice. However, his success was interrupted by the events that begin the book: the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the subsequent pillaging of the wealthy. With Thomas’ life in danger in Russia and his family fragmented due to the war, the second half of the book focuses on his attempt to rebuild his life amid the political upheaval in Turkey. The obstacles to success were far greater in Constantinople, and this part of the book showcases the most difficult years of his life. Thomas’ story is certainly interesting, particularly since he was able to thrive in Europe in a way most African-American men of his generation couldn’t dream of. However, the author never recreates the prologue’s sense of urgency, and the narrative suffers from pacing issues throughout, with some parts reading like a novel and some like a history text.
Though sometimes dry, a good choice for those who enjoy reading about life’s underdogs.