Written by Paul Grabbe with daughter Alexandra Grabbe, the memoir Émigré entices the reader to travel back through time to witness the exhilarating ninety-five year-long life of Russian Count Paul Grabbe, born in 1902 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Count Grabbe’s father, Count General Alexander Grabbe, was a brave favorite of Tsar Nicholas II whose young sons Nils and Paul grew up in the uppermost, intimate circle of the Russian aristocracy of the time. However, forces beyond the control of the tsar would put an end to the privilege and exalted social standing of young Pavlik and his family. .As a teenager, Paul watched the painful eradication of several European monarchies and the aristocracy to which his family belonged as a result of WWI and the Bolshevik Revolution, respectively. Only minutes ahead and with the Bolsheviks at their heels, Paul and his family barely escaped capture with their lives. Paul Grabbe also lived through the Great Depression, WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the social unrest and change of the 1960s-1970s, past the space age and the computer-age through to global warming and globalization. Although these events from the past were many and resulted in a series of moral and civic changes throughout the world, as a backdrop to Mr. Grabbe’s life they somehow pale by comparison to his own story. Born in the European East of Russia, the young Russian-speaking Paul Grabbe learned to speak French as a child and Danish as an adolescent as he traveled and lived in Central and Western Europe. As a very young adult he crossed the Atlantic Ocean to live and work across the farthest reaches of America, working at picturesque Pike’s Peak in Colorado as he learned to speak English, eventually working his way to the shores of the Pacific Ocean in California. Mr. Grabbe’s life spanned the twentieth century and the entirety of the Western world.
Worth the purchase price alone are the many telling, carefully preserved pictures that illustrate Mr. Grabbe’s life. From that of a wide-eyed babe in a white layette at six months old to that of a mischievous boy of six in France – Paul and his older brother Nils dressed alike in period costume of short pants, a striped button-down shirt with matching hand-tied bow tie, and a sombrero hat – to the photo of the author and brother Nils dressed alike in navy blue and white miniature sailor’s uniforms on the lap of their handsomely suited father, Count General Alexander, dozens of early photos come to life as a testament to the status and privilege the author enjoyed during the first decade and a half of his life. Many more pictures follow that show what the author did and how he lived at every turn of his life, including photos of the British ship the Princess Margaret, on which the Grabbe family made their escape from the Bolsheviks by the skin of their teeth. There are also many photos of the author’s father with Tsar Nicholas II, his children, and various family members in the line of duty and in social settings, and a photo of King Christian X of Denmark, whose generosity through a chance meeting improved the Grabbe family fortunes. Among the pictures of non-human subjects are photos of famed Christian relics rescued and returned by the author to their proper place after WWI, and a photo of the grand Antlers Hotel, dwarfed by a snow-covered Pike’s Peak in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Additional pictures of the author show him as an adolescent in Denmark and as he lived and grew older in America. At first a lark and purely an adventure and means of support until the Bolshevik revolutionaries failed, Paul Grabbe’s new homeland eventually albeit grudgingly became accepted as a permanent home after he realized that the Bolsheviks and their form of government and way of life were not going to go away as he previously thought.
Whether readers are interested in the exciting and tragic history of early twentieth-century Russia, photos of Tsar Nicholas II and Russian nobility, vicariously living through the aristocracy, living through social and cultural change in Europe after WWI, or learning about how to cope and prosper in a foreign country within legal boundaries when one’s social, moral, economic, and cultural values of childhood are replaced by differing and opposing values in adulthood, Émigré is a captivating story that offers something fascinating for all readers.
Sherri Miller is a fiction editor at Halfway Down the Stairs.
© 2015, Sherri Miller