In 1982, 10-year-old Samantha Smith wrote a letter to Yuri Andropov soon after he took over as General Secretary of the Communist Party after the death of Leonid Brezhnev, asking for answers about the rising tensions between the United States and Soviet Union. The letter was subsequently published in the Soviet newspaper, Pravda, and about five months later, Andropov responded with a much-publicized letter and invitation for Smith and her family to visit his country. Smith swiftly transformed into the media sensation of the moment, being interviewed by the major networks, penning a book, becoming the youngest peace ambassador to Japan, and pursuing an acting career. All of this ambition and stardom came to a sudden end, when at age 13, Smith died in a plane crash in Auburn, Maine.
Like many young people of her generation, this string of cultural events bore an indelible mark on the imagination and attention of writer Elliott Holt when she was growing up in Washington, D.C., at the time. “I didn’t know Smith,” explains Holt, now 39, “but I related to her because I was very worried about nuclear war, and I was the kind of kid who wrote a lot of letters.” Much later, in 2006, when Holt was a graduate student in the MFA writing program at Brooklyn College, going to school by night and working as a full-time copywriter at an advertising agency by day, she started to mull over what happened to Smith again. “I became interested in how children become symbols of innocence and useful propaganda tools,” Holt says. “Also, I knew that I wanted to take the themes of the Cold War to the small scale of friendship and rivalries.”
The idea initially took hold in the form of a short story about two good friends writing letters to Andropov, but only one receiving an invitation to the USSR. “It was more satirical and arch,” Holt says of the earlier version, which included footnotes. “It didn’t quite work, but I couldn’t let go of the premise. I began to explore the marginalized character that is left behind. I became more interested in the history—both the personal and the cultural—and how that can shape a person.”
Eventually, the idea expanded into Holt’s engaging debut novel, You Are One of Them, which centers on the friendship of the first-person narrator Sarah Zuckerman and her best friend and neighbor, Jenny Jones. Toggling between the time periods of 1980s in Washington D.C. and the 1990s in Moscow, the fluid, first-person narrative weaves together a convincing landscape of the Cold War years. Details, like Casey Kasem’s Top 40, stacked black rubber bracelets and locked diaries, bring the childhood experience of the ’80s alive. Ultimately, the narrative is propelled by grief—both by Sarah’s sister’s early death from meningitis and then fueled further by Jenny’s death (also in a plane crash, but there were no identifiable remains, unlike the true-life Smith case). “In those bewildering early days, I dreamed often of Jenny,” Holt writes. “Sometimes we were in her pool, playing Marco Polo. My eyes were closed, and I was groping around the shallow end, trying to find her. Marco, I called. Polo, she said, in a voice that barely suppressed a laugh.”
Fresh out of college, Sarah receives an enigmatic email from a young woman named Svetlana with an invitation to visit Moscow and perhaps truly discover what happened to her childhood friend. As the story progresses, the narrative takes on the tone of a travelogue of sorts, guiding the reader through the sights of Moscow while escalating the shadowy mystery surrounding Jenny’s death. Taken altogether, Holt delivers a thought-provoking examination of her narrator’s emotional tethers to the past and present—and how this defines the deeper contours of her adult life.
Holt is the first to admit that “our notions of connection have broadened and changed so much” during recent years. In order to break her own writerly isolation, the author often turns to Twitter and other social-networking sites. “If you work at home,” she says, “it’s like a virtual water cooler when you need to take a break. It’s nice to banter with people about the latest episode of Mad Men.” (At the writing of this article, Holt had written 19,381 tweets and had 6,282 followers.)
Twitter, and other social media, also offers an interesting intersection of the private and public selves. “The voice feels compelling enough that you feel like you know the person,” Holt says, “but in the end, it’s a performance. What I find very intriguing about it is negotiating the private and public space. You can’t avoid being a brand. If this is going to happen, you might as well as have control over it. I’m a very private person, so I’m pretty conscious about what I choose to reveal.”
Though some people might describe Holt’s debut as a coming-of-age narrative, the author hopes that readers will also experience the book as a broader, coming-of-age story about society. “It’s about America coming of age and Russia coming of age,” says Holt, “and how the personal and cultural intersect.”
S. Kirk Walsh has written for Guernica, The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times and The Boston Globe, among other publications. She is at work on a novel.