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Nora Percival

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Nora and her granddaughter Emily Wynns participated in the Story Corps project in New York City. The interview was picked up by NPR's Morning Edition. 
 

The text below is from the NPR home page. This text and the audio version of the interview can be accessed at:  http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5624811

The attached images are also on the website.

 

Morning Edition, August 11, 2006 q At 92, Nora Percival has lived a long and varied life. But she's still making her way -- at 88, she turned to writing full time. As she recently told her granddaughter, Emily Wynns, it was a pursuit she had long put off.

Percival first had the desire to write in the 1930s. But in the days of the Great Depression, it was a struggle merely to survive. And Percival's life wasn't easy in those days.

After her husband, Herman Gund, died of leukemia in 1939, Percival learned she was pregnant. And as she says, even at 24, "I was determined that I was going to have his child."

"When I got older, and things eased up, then I realized there was one more act of resurrection I needed to do, Percival says.

She wrote a book, fulfilling a long-held ambition -- and reliving her love affair with Gund. The hundreds of letters they had written each other served as the raw material.

This piece was produced for 'Morning Edition' by Piya Kochhar and Katie Simon.

Nora Percival's experience is hardly unique. Only the telling of it is. Millions of Americans have parents and grandparents who emigrated from the "old countries" of Europe and Asia. For many, however, that was another lifetime: one they aren't willing to share. Nora Percival shares, not only her early memories (many of them admittedly reconstructed from what she learned later), but also the perspective of a lifetime of study and experience.

The afternoon of Nora's fourth birthday, suitcases appeared in the front hall and her father left to catch a train. In itself, the happening wasn't unique. Adolf Lurye owned a small factory manufacturing household chemicals and often traveled, purchasing raw materials or attending trade conferences. Even at barely four, however, Nora was aware that this time the goodbyes were particularly fervent, almost desperate.

Little Nora adored her handsome father, as children often do, loved to sit on his lap and play with the handsome curl of his mustaches, or walk with both her parents along the esplanade at the Volga river just down the hill from their yellow house. She particularly looked forward to the times the family took a picnic to the nearby Zhiguli hills and the weeks they spent at a dacha with Babushka and Zeyde and the aunts, uncles and cousins. That afternoon in October of 1918 marked the end of all these pleasures for Nora as they ended for millions of other Russian families marked as bourjui by the leaders of the Communist revolution.

"Shoot me just because I managed to buy a small factory? But I started out poor as any peasant," Nora's Papa Adolf Lurye protested to the old friend, now a member of the local governing body who warned him he was on the list for arrest. Lurye had struggled from an impoverished childhood in a Shtetl near Minsk, through a term in his uncle's lumber business to the purchase of the factory and the adjoining house in 1913. His involvement in civic affairs and his growing prosperity were enough to mark Adolf Lurye for elimination.

On the day of Papa's leaving, the family could not have imagined that the grip of the communist revolution would last 70 years. It was the difficulty of the journey east, away from the worst of the fighting, that determined Lurye's decision to leave his wife and daughter with his parents in Samara. He turned aside his daughter's pleas to be taken along by telling her to take care of her mother and not to let her get lonely and sad. Perhaps it was only an adult's way of placating a child's need to feel important, but Nora accepted it as a charge, and this perception of herself as the caretaker for her mother colors the rest of the narrative.

Percival's insightful research clarifies the background of her personal history. The reader experiences the nightmare life of Bolshevik Russia, when millions of people existed in an endless crisis situation, caught helplessly between opposing forces. The revolution was a struggle between the powerful nobles and landowners on one hand and the poor, tired of living on a bare minimum in an inefficient economy, on the other. Yet the growing middle class was in many ways the chief sufferer in the conflict. Most were powerless to maintain their status in the new regime, though many had welcomed the first steps to democracy.

As the fabric of society disintegrated, millions were cast adrift. Cut off from their roots, material and spiritual, deprived of family ties, they lost their sense of self and of their place in an ordered universe. The author's recreation of the climate in which her family struggled to maintain a normal home for the children and a stable life to sustain themselves produces a moving portrait of a fractured society.

The reader is eyewitness to dramatic scenes of the revolution: Papa's flight east as the Red army prepares to occupy the city, soldiers billeted in the family home, gathering in the grandparent's flat because of new restrictions in housing space, the threat posed by a fire in a neighborhood church, the desperate search for food through years of drought, the hordes of

refugees from the famine districts, threat of disease, finally even of cannibalism, the lifesaving arrival of the American Relief Administration. After Papa makes his way to America and sends for his wife and child, the setting shifts to Moscow and to New York. But America proves not to be the promised land for everyone.

Finally, desperate to escape the new world she cannot comprehend, Nora's mother prepares to return to Europe where she was happy in her own youth. The ship has barely sailed before she is overtaken by the effects of the pernicious anemia that had likely contributed to the ill health and depression that haunted her life. In harrowing detail Percival recounts her determined efforts to care for her mother in a public workhouse and her mother's final goodbye. Percival shares her sojourn in the immigrant camp in Southhampton, where she served as a pint-sized volunteer interpreter and so gained a particularly mature perspective into the lives of her fellow exiles. and her struggle to return to her father in America.

Nora Percival's story is a personal one, yet it is also universal. It reads like a novel, yet the story is true. Her determination to share her story, "to speak for all the others who have silently endured the loss of all they valued," makes it unique.

Nora Percival speaks at Appalachian Brian Estates:

At 87, Nora Percival is preparing to enter Appalachian Brian Estates but only for the afternoon. She's conducting a program with the residents, a discussion of her book: Weather of the Heart: A Child's Journey Out of Revolutionary Russia, on August 15th, at 2:30 p.m.

Percival immigrated to the U.S. in 1922 after an arduous four year odyssey that began on her fourth birthday. Her father Abraham Lurye was forced to leave his family in Samara, Russia when the red army took over the town. His position as a politically active small factory owner earned him a place on the list marked for liquidation. When it became apparent that he would be unable to return soon, Nora's mother prepared to join him in New York.

This is the story so many Americans long to hear from parents and grandparents who immigrated from the "old countries" of the world, a story so many are unable or unwilling to share of life in another time and place. Ms Percival shares not only her own story but endeavors to speak for so many others who have silently endured the loss of all they knew and valued.

A local resident for over a dozen years, Ms Percival worked as an editor for McMillan in New York, served as Alumnae Director and editor of the alumnae publication for her alma mater, Barnard College, and worked and reared her five children in Connecticut. After the death of her husband, she moved to Boone to be near two of her daughters. Other children live in San Francisco, California, Princeton, New Jersey and Juneau, Alaska.

High Country Publishers has supplied free copies of Weather of the Heart: A Child's Journey Out of Revolutionary Russia. so residents and staff will have the opportunity to become familiar with the book before Ms Percival's program. The public is welcome, however reservations are requested so that preparations can be made.

Princeton University Store hosts Nora Percival

Nora Percival, author of the memoir Weather of the Heart: A Child's Journey Out of Revolutionary Russia, will read and sign copies of her book at the Princeton University Store on December 12 at 7:00 p.m. Other appearances in the Princeton, N.J area include signings at Rutgers University Store at 7:00 p.m. on December 10, and at The Columbia University Store at 3:00 p.m. on December 11. A radio interview with Ms. Percival will be aired December 3 at

4:00 p.m. on WDVR-FM.

Nora Percival's story is shared by the thousands who immigrated to the U.S. from the "old countries" of Europe in the early 1900s--the parents and grandparents of millions of Americans today. All too often, however, the stories of those difficult times are lost to us, either because the principals did not survive to tell them, or because those who lived them were unwilling to dwell on past hardships, feeling that their stories happened in "another life," and have little to do with their lives in the new land, or with their American children and grandchildren.

Nora Percival tells her story from the unique perspective of a long lifetime of reflection and experience. Her research illuminates her childhood odyssey from the city of Samara in central Russia, through Moscow to Latvia and England, and finally to New York's Ellis Island and to her new life in America. As a four-year-old child, little Niura found that she had to grow up suddenly, and take some responsibility for her desperately ill mother, as the two found their way through bureaucratic demands for perfectly drawn up papers and perfect health, through bone-chilling cold and uncertain transportation systems.

Little Niura quickly learned her new language, and graduated from Barnard College in the 1930s. She became one of the first editors of paperback books (then called "25-cent reprints"), was employed by Random House as an editor, where she edited the monumental four-volume new edition of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. After World War II, she became the Director of Alumnae Affairs at her alma mater, Barnard College. Another book, retelling the love story of her parents through the post cards they exchanged during their courtship in 1913, is scheduled for release in 2002; and she is now working on a new novel, a love story set in the Barnard/Columbia literary community of her college years.

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