Lost in Mother Russia

A Memoir

Non-Fiction - Memoir
Kindle Edition
Reviewed on 04/15/2020
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Author Biography

Author of Lost in Mother Russia, Jill McDowell, a directionally-challenged ESL professor, spent two years (1995-1996) teaching English at Moscow State University. Armed with a 100-year-old map and the exceptional navigational skills of a personable driver, she found her way to Norka, the tiny Russian village where her ancestors lived from 1763 to 1900. When not writing, she occasionally works as an actor and voiceover artist. She was born in Canada, spent 50 years in Southern California—and, hoping to see rain once more before she dies—has settled in the Pacific Northwest. The weather has not disappointed.

    Book Review

Reviewed by Maria Victoria Beltran for Readers' Favorite

Lost in Mother Russia: A Memoir by Jill McDowell is an intimate look at Russia set in the middle 1990s. The author, an ESL teacher who teaches at Moscow State University and at the school in the Japanese Embassy, decides to search for her roots in the remote village of Norka. Together with a colleague, they find themselves in the thousand-year-old village of Suzdal, getting lost in some remote backroad 350 kilometers away from Moscow, going to Estonia, to Warsaw, to Moscow and back. And this is in December when the temperature reaches thirty-nine degrees below zero. Throw in the notorious Russian red tape and an array of interesting characters and the result is a wonderfully wacky adventure.

Jill McDowell's Lost in Mother Russia: A Memoir is a funny, informative and highly entertaining trip in the vast snowy expanse of Russia. The memoir unfolds innocently enough but quickly becomes a series of events that are both hilarious and unfortunate. Driven by the desire to trace her roots, McDowell ends up writing a treasure of a memoir. Her writing style is direct, simple and meticulously descriptive. One can almost feel the chill of the wintry weather and the desire to rave and rant at embassy officials. And in the face of what seems like exasperating experiences, she never loses her sense of humor and that's what makes this memoir a gem of a book. This is a book that definitely deserves a precious space in your bookshelf. Have a nice trip!

K.C. Finn

Lost In Mother Russia is a work of non-fiction written in the style of a memoir by author Jill McDowell. Suitable and accessible to readers of all sensibilities, this enjoyable and highly entertaining work takes readers through a particular time period in the life of the author during a two-year stay in her ancestral home of Russia. McDowell chronicles her time as both an ESL teacher and a fervent traveler as she tracks down her own heritage, traveling to amazing places in Eastern Europe to discover her roots. What she finds along the way is an intrinsically human journey and a culturally eye-opening experience.

As a fellow ESL teacher, I absolutely loved author Jill McDowell’s working-in of her trials and tribulations with Russian and Japanese students particularly. The author’s narrative is charming and easy to read, making it feel as though the story is being told to you by a friend rather than simply reading a travelogue or personal account from a magazine. There’s tremendous atmosphere to the work too, painting delicate word pictures of the many amazing places McDowell had the privilege to visit during her time there, and the snapshots of unique people that she met along the way. For memoir fans, this is a light and humorous tale that plays on themes of culture clash and learning new things in the most delightful of narrative styles. Overall, Lost In Mother Russia is an excellent read for former teachers and travel writing fans alike.

Susan Sewell

Explore the incredible majesty of Russia in the fascinating memoir, Lost in Mother Russia (A Memoir) by Jill McDowell. After living a full and interesting life, Jill decides to go on a quest to rediscover both her maternal and paternal family roots. Despite the fact she is following a one-hundred-year-old map and is map-dyslexic and directionally challenged, Jill sets out on a journey of a lifetime. Traveling back to Russia, she accepts a job as an English teacher in Moscow, giving her the freedom to visit her family's ancestral town and savor her heritage. While reconnecting with her past, Jill experiences the beauty, hardships, and camaraderie of living in one of the harshest and most unforgiving of lands. From sleeping in train compartments with strangers of both genders, witnessing civilians smuggling just to survive, to being robbed of her money more than once, Ms. McDowell paints a vivid picture of her extreme and sometimes dangerous adventures.

Lost in Mother Russia (A Memoir) by Jill McDowell presents the reader with an intriguing view of Russia in the mid-1990s. The Moscow and countryside Ms. McDowell describes are reminiscent of scenes in the 1997 movie "The Saint". The starkness of the winter and the hardships the populace endures are mind-boggling. I was horrified when Ms. McDowell had difficulty getting decent medical attention, something which is, regrettably, normal for the inhabitants of that city. The idea that there were no laundromats and public toilets, much less every home having one facility is incomprehensible to me. This is a wonderful account of one woman's amazing adventures in search of her ancestral home, and I recommend this book to armchair travelers and everyone who loves to read about other countries and their customs.

Patricia Reding

Jill McDowell takes any reader with an interest in historical Russia, as well as from its days as a part of the USSR, on a journey of discovery in Lost in Mother Russia. McDowell traveled there in 1995. I personally was something of a student of Russian and USSR history and so, to this day, I am interested in the real-life accounts of those who spent time there. I am happy to say that I was not disappointed with McDowell’s memoir of her experiences. She opened with a discussion of the difficulties one could face in becoming employed in Russia—a story that comes with more than a few chuckles. Moving on, I thoroughly enjoyed reading McDowell’s experiences with unusually cold weather. As one who resides in a part of the U.S. known for its extremely cold temperatures, I chuckled at McDowell’s story of how she survived a journey to a small village when temperatures were 39 degrees below zero. Yes, I too, have experienced that kind of cold, so I was fully able to appreciate why she and her traveling partners decided not to make any rest stops during the course of their five-hour long journey—given that it would have meant using a grove of trees at the side of the road.

Jill McDowell’s original intention may have been to set out her experiences so that she might not forget them in the future, and perhaps so that she could share them with family and friends, but there is a greater value to the story she sets out in Lost in Mother Russia. Specifically, McDowell has memorialized for anyone interested the means of travel in Russia in the mid-1990s, the type of crime that travelers commonly experienced in those days, the lessons one might learn from fellow travelers, the art of gift-giving (in the form of single U.S. $1 bills), the state of everyday tools one depends on that were missing in those days in Russia (including such simple things as telephone directories), the experience of waiting on bureaucrats who did not regard themselves as servants of the people, and so much more. I found McDowell’s sense of adventure encouraging. Indeed, I would not likely have been so brave. So since the closest I will ever get to taking a train through the Russian countryside will likely be via McDowell’s memoir, I am happy to have had the opportunity to have done just that. If you have an interest in Russia, its history and its people, give this a try. If you have not previously had such an interest—this could just awaken something new in you.

Vincent Dublado

Jill McDowell effectively combines her love of teaching and traveling in the fascinating non-fiction work, Lost in Mother Russia: A Memoir. Here she tells the story of her two-year stay in Russia (1995-1996) as an ESL teacher, recounting her ordeal in this enigmatic country as she gives us a first-person look in her chronicles of the land of her roots. We follow her itineraries in some lesser-known parts of Russia, as she visits the freezing village of Suzdal and traces her roots in Norka. We follow her lead as she introduces us to Russia’s local color on her backroad trips encountering gypsies, as well as keeping herself low on the radar by not acting too American in Red Square.

At the beginning of her journey, she confesses that she was jobless in Moscow, but Jill McDowell was not helpless. The Russian city didn’t disappoint her, as she manages to get herself out of it. At the villages she visited, she manages to re-connect and look back at her personal history. Her memoir includes unpleasant experiences, including excessive bureaucracy and red tape that she experienced firsthand in needing immediate medical assistance when she injured her shin. Yet, Ms. McDowell emerges enlightened and remains optimistic at the end. Lost in Mother Russia: A Memoir gets it right—that you have the choice to make the best or worst of any given situation. It’s the fulfilling experience of an educator and adventurer that is focused and welcomes the world with open arms. Her exposure to the land of her origins is a journey of enlightenment that makes her even wiser from the aesthetics of her experience.