have fallen in love—with a book, a peninsula in Siberia, and most of all, with
its native Even people.
Earth, by Julia Phillips, opens with the abduction of two young white girls
from a beach in Petropavlovsk on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. Their fate is
compared to an earlier tsunami that wiped out an entire town, while the
police’s vigorous search for them is contrasted with the earlier disappearance
of a native girl, whom they dismissed as a promiscuous runaway.
isolated from Western influences, Kamchatka is reeling from the collapse of the
Soviet Union and the currency devaluations that followed. Older people, who
still hang pictures of Stalin on their walls, wrestle with existential
questions about whether freedom was worth what they perceive as a breakdown in
values, while young adults resent their parents’ pensions, paid-for apartments,
and free university educations. Simmering underneath, like the fault lines
responsible for Kamchatka’s devastating earthquakes, lies a unique urban/ rural
divide: Petropavlovsk is largely white, while remote villages, including Esso
and its environs, constitute the traditional homes and grazing grounds of the
reindeer-herding Even people.
Told through a series of interlocking stories, Disappearing Earth focuses on the lives and relationships of Kamchatka’s women and how the girls’ abduction impacts them. These women struggle with husbands and boyfriends, their roles in life, and most of all, with how they can better themselves in a society that seeks to relegate them to chain-bound roles: dutiful daughter; slut; and housewife/mother. Under these constraints, how does any woman—native or white—manage to live an empowered life free from violence?
reindeer on their circuitous annual journeys, over the course of a year we
follow the compromises these women make with life. We meet a white housewife
who fetishizes impoverished native construction workers, simply to escape the
boredom of childcare. A native woman, caught between her traditional family and
the sneering snobbery of her university classmates, carries on relationships
with both a controlling Russian boyfriend and an intelligent native man who
understands the salmon dances of their people.
woman who lives the freest life is a lesbian who defies Russia’s dangerous
homophobia and shares an apartment in St. Petersburg with her lover. After a
painful break up, she returns to Kamchatka for a New Year’s Eve party, where
she reconciles with a girlhood friend whom she has never forgotten—and to whom
she has never before confided her homosexuality. Be careful, the friend
whispers. The police can hurt you.
writer, reading Disappearing Earth evoked a flitter of despair: I have never
hiked volcanoes, fumaroles, or glacier-carved lakes. I have never felt the
ground tremble under thousands of reindeer hooves. I have never counted the
stars in a Siberian night sky or heard the air hiss with the smoke of active
volcanoes. How can my stories compare?
I struggle to empower myself as a writer, I am so glad Julia Phillips brought
me into the world of Kamchatka and its brave, resourceful women.