Its title taken from a Russian Jewish saying pronounced over a child speaking her first words, this novel brings to life a tiny Russian Jewish village of the early twentieth century and the brutal imprisonment that socialist agitators were subjected to by the imperial government.
The storyteller is a young mother, Miriam, 23 years old and already jailed in Siberia for six years. The story is her memoir in the form of a letter to her six-year-old daughter, who was taken away from her at birth. It starts with the painful circumstances of Miriam’s birth and abandonment by her superstitious mother. She’s raised at first by a family friend and then by her father and stepmother after they marry.
Miriam’s village sits between a pine forest and a vast marsh that locals are drawn to even while it frightens them and fuels their belief in a malevolent supernatural. Most of the characters are women, and they are both superstitious and smart, judgmental and kind. Richler controls the potential sprawl of the plot and settings by staying focused on the details seen through Miriam’s eyes. Her stepmother satisfyingly evolves from a young wife who doesn't particularly want Miriam in her home to a stern, loving, and steadfast mother.
The few male characters act as catalysts in the plot, starting in flashback to Miriam’s late mother’s seduction, and continuing as time passes and some of the young villagers begin to agitate against the tsar’s regime. The novel exposes the brutality of the regime as well as that of the radical socialists, who in 1905 struggle through one aborted revolution after another. Tsarist police throw teenagers in jail for distributing leaflets; radical organizers exploit and steal from each other. Young women activists touchingly confide their longings for a beautiful coat or dress only to a trustworthy friend so as not to be thought decadent by their comrades.
Miriam is first doomed and later helped by her stepmother's idealistic sister Bayla, who rejects a traditional arranged marriage within the village and vanishes to Kiev with her socialist lover. Eventually the distant Bayla grudgingly admits she longs for true love, to be cherished for herself instead of earning her worth by struggling for revolution. Her more stridently political lover admits to feeling a fatal reluctance at a crucial moment. Mixed feelings are everywhere.