Monday, June 6, 2016

Q&A with Marina J. Neary, Author of The Gate of Dawn

Please join me in welcoming Marina J. Neary back to Let Them Read Books! Marina has a brand new novel out, The Gate of Dawn, a novel of Czarist Lithuania, and she's here today with answers to some common questions she receives from readers interested in learning more about this time in history in the region that would become Lithuania. Read on, and feel free to leave your own questions or comments for Marina!

Welcome to 1880s Vilnius, a volatile Northeastern metropolis where Balts, Germans, Poles, Russians, and Jews compete for a place in the sun. After sustaining fatal burns in a fire instigated by his rivals, textile magnate Hermann Lichtner spends his final days in a shabby infirmary. In a hasty and bizarre deathbed transaction he gives his fifteen-year-old daughter Renate in marriage to Thaddeus, a widowed Polish farmer who rejects social hierarchy and toils side by side with his peasants. 

Renate’s arrival quickly disrupts the bucolic flow of life and antagonizes every member of the household. During an excursion to the city, Renate rekindles an affair with a young Jewish painter who sells his watercolors outside the Gate of Dawn chapel. While her despairing husband might look the other way, his servants will not stand by and watch while their adored master is humiliated. 

Taking us from the cobblestone streets of old Vilnius, swarming with imperial gendarmes, to the misty bogs of rural Lithuania where pagan deities still rule, The Gate of Dawn is a folkloric tale of rivalry, conspiracy, and revenge.


Jenny, thank you for hosting me on your blog and giving me an opportunity to talk about my latest novel The Gate of Dawn, set in 19th-century Lithuania, the land of my paternal ancestors. At that time in history, Lithuania did not exist as a country. Most of it belonged to Czarist Russia, and a small portion in the West was under Prussian rule. Despite the compulsory Russification, targeted at destroying the indigenous Baltic culture, old customs were still very much in effect in the rural areas. I will continue using the term Lithuania.

In modern American culture, young people are taught that picking on your peers, using unflattering terms, and making sexual comments is a big no-no. There are massive anti-bullying campaigns. And yet, peer aggression finds new forms to manifest itself. How was this issue handled in 19th-century Lithuania? Young people were given specific time slots, usually tied to seasonal holidays, during which they could practice immature, lewd, and cruel behavior. Those antics often had a theatrical quality and were accompanied by thematic songs and costume pieces. Outside those allotted time slots, discourteous behavior was not tolerated. Maybe there is some wisdom to that? Because 19th-century Lithuania is such an unusual setting for a historical novel, my readers have asked me some questions about it. I am happy to give you some insight into the culture and value structure of that particular society.

How did young people find mates? What was the dating/courtship protocol in 19th century Lithuania? 

Single young people actively seeking mates lived and worked in youth communities. They had frequent work parties where they would have an opportunity to showcase their skills. The parties were supervised by chaperones to ensure that decorum was kept and the eligible females were safe. During certain celebrations tied to a harvesting cycle, more physical contact was permitted. The songs and the dances would have more erotic overtones.

When a girl got her period for the first time, her mother would slap her on the face and say, "Bloom like a rose, be beautiful!" So the girl's initiation into adult life would start with a slap. Outside of that ritual, corporal punishment was uncommon.

When a young man was admitted into the youth community, his new "brothers" would chase him, taunt him, and beat him up. It was a part of the initiation process. Afterward, they would take him to the recreational hall and treat him to some fine ale. He would serve as the center of attention for the rest of the night.

Can you describe the marriage order?

If there were multiple daughters in the family, strict order of seniority was to be observed. Younger sisters could not contemplate marriage and attend youth parties if their older sister was not married. If the oldest daughter was not having much luck landing a husband, her parents would consider sending her off to the city to work, or even to America! Another option would be going to a convent.

What would be some of the reasons that would undermine a young woman's prospects of marriage?

A physical deformity -- not of cosmetic kind -- that would impair her ability to work and produce children. If a traditional Victorian damsel was expected to faint for no reason, that would not win her any favors in rural Lithuania. If she had a chronic medical condition, her parents would probably put her in a convent because she would not last very long in a farming setting. There are many misconceptions that the famous "Victorian" standard applied to all 19th-century women across the board. Fragility, delicacy, prudishness, and submissiveness were not qualities that would make a Lithuanian peasant girl attractive. Good health, good common sense, and work ethic is what made her a desirable bride.

What was the attitude toward domestic violence and rape?

Domestic violence was far more common in Russian rural communities than in Lithuanian. The Balts are very utilitarian when it comes to their value system. Why would any man in his right mind risk injuring his wife and compromise her ability to work? It was in the whole family's best interests to keep the mother healthy and productive. A man convicted of beating his wife and incapacitating her would have to answer before the whole village. A healthy working woman was considered a valuable contributing member of the community. Verbal reprimands and withholding of funds were considered acceptable methods for a man to discipline an uncooperative wife.

What modern Americans would call a "date rape" was extremely uncommon in rural Lithuania, given that most courtship activities happened in public with an older facilitator/chaperone present. During the harvesting games and celebrations, touching and groping was permitted and even encouraged. If things got out of hands, the offending party would be instantly reprimanded.

What happened to a woman who had a baby outside of wedlock?

If her partner was identified and unmarried, the logical step would be for them to go through public penance and marry. If the father of the child was not identified, the girl would be shamed for a day. In some parts they would tie her to the church door. In other parts they would put her into a muddy ditch. However, the shaming ritual had a time limit. Once the punishment was over, she would not be shunned. She would be excluded from the youth community, which would significantly undermine her chances of finding a respectable young man to marry, but she would be allowed to work and go to church. Her status would be that of a young widow. She could marry a widower down the line, or a man who was considered an "inferior" catch due to disability, criminal history or compromised financial situation. To make a long story short, an illegitimate child would undermine a young woman's chances of marrying a competitive bachelor, but it was not a death sentence.

Find The Gate of Dawn on
Amazon  ~  Barnes & Noble  ~  Goodreads

Check out Marina's recent interview on White Plains Roundup!

And visit Marina's blog, where she writes about under-represented cultures and shares book reviews.

About the Author:

A self-centered, only child of classical musicians, Marina Julia Neary spent her early years in Eastern Europe and came to the US at the age of thirteen. Her literary career revolves around depicting military and social disasters, from the Charge of the Light Brigade, to the Irish Famine, to the Easter Rising in Dublin, to the nuclear explosion in Chernobyl some thirty miles away from her home town. Notorious for her abrasive personality and politically incorrect views that make her a persona non grata in most polite circles, Neary explores human suffering through the prism of dark humor, believing that tragedy and comedy go hand in hand.

Her debut thriller Wynfield's Kingdom was featured on the cover of the First Edition Magazine in the UK and earned the praise of the Neo-Victorian Studies Journal. After writing a series of novels dealing with the Anglo-Irish conflict, she takes a break from the slums of London and the gunpowder-filled streets of Dublin to delve into the picturesque radioactive swamps of her native Belarus. Saved by the Bang: a Nuclear Comedy is a deliciously offensive autobiographical satire featuring sex scandals of Eastern Europe's artistic elite in the face of political upheavals. Her latest Penmore release, The Gate of Dawn is a folkloric tale of conspiracy and revenge set in czarist Lithuania.

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