Listening time: 4 minutes.
Among the warm-hearted and even funny accounts of people they met in the Soviet Union, this searing observation by John Steinbeck stood out, concerning a young girl apparently unhinged by the effects of war. Her near-feral and watchful mistrust is in stark counterpoint to that startlingly unexpected gesture at the end.
I also appreciate the compassionate way Steinbeck writes about her, sensitive to her dignity, despite the blankness of her war wounded gaze. Doesn’t bear thinking about what she must have witnessed or experienced that left her locked in emotional as well as physical rubble. What became of her?
The photos by Robert Capa which accompany Steinbeck’s text include a grainy one of the girl. Sadly the Penguin edition reproduces these photos on the normal blotting paper pages, rather than in a separate glossy paper insert, and so it doesn’t do them justice. But so you know, Capa conveyed the sadness of the girl in his medium as well as Steinbeck in his.
‘There was one rather terrifying exception. Directly behind the hotel, and in a place overlooked by our windows, there was a little garbage pile, where melon rinds, bones, potato peels, and such things were thrown out. And a few yards further on, there was a little hummock, like the entrance to a gopher hole. And every morning, early, out of this hole a young girl crawled. She had long legs and bare feet, and her arms were thin and stringy, and her hair was matted and filthy. She was covered with years of dirt, so that she looked very brown. And when she raised her face it was one of the most beautiful faces we have ever seen. Her eyes were crafty, like the eyes of a fox, but they were not human. The face was well developed and not moronic. Somewhere in the terror of the fighting in the city, something had snapped, and she had retired to some comfort of forgetfulness. She squatted on her hams and ate watermelon rinds and sucked the bones of other people’s soup. She usually stayed there for about two hours before she got her stomach full. And then she went out in the weeds, and lay down, and went to sleep in the sun. Her face was of a chiseled loveliness, and on her long legs she moved with the grace of a wild animal. The other people who lived in the cellars of the lot rarely spoke to her. But one morning I saw a woman come out of another hole and give her half a loaf of bread. And the girl clutched at it almost snarlingly and held it against her chest. She looked like a half-wild dog at the woman who had given her the bread, and watched her suspiciously until she had gone back into her own cellar, and then she turned and buried her face in the slab of black bread, and like an animal she looked over the bread, her eyes twitching back and forth. And as she gnawed at the bread, one side of her ragged filthy shawl slipped away from her dirty young breast, and her hand automatically brought the shawl back and covered her breast and patted it in place with a heart-breaking feminine gesture.’
Source: John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal, with photographs by Robert Capa (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999 (1948)), pp. 115-17