Matryoshka is a 30,000-word middle grade novel set in the teeming tenements and garment district of New York City 1906. Mara is an eleven-year-old girl, though she does not know her age — nor that she is even human for that matter, because of secrets and misinformation given by her mother who Mara knows only as “the Russian.” But the Russian’s withholding isn’t malevolent; she protects herself from the traumatic truth of Mara’s conception: a rape upon her arrival to the shore of America. The room Mara and the Russian share is pregnant with silence and Mara’s yearning to be loved, but the Russian can provide nothing but a steady, yet stoic presence and the droning of her sewing machine.
Mara spends her lonely days on the streets, roaming the pushcart markets and alleys and rail yards scavenging for scraps of food and coal. She witnesses the brutal scrapes of orphans with the coppers and fears even more than her impending starvation and survival, being swiped by the coppers and carted off to an orphanage where the street kids have informed her “kids die cramped together in the airless dark.” The only thing scarier to her is the garment factory her mother works within. Mara considers it the devil itself.
In a fateful meeting with the Irishman who saved Mara’s life on the night of her birth, Mara learns that she has a birthday; that she was born to a human mother, making her human, too; and that her mother is the Russian. She returns to the tenement room to share and celebrate the news with the Russian, but when the Russian shuts down and refuses the information, Mara confronts her.
When Mara returns from the streets the next day, the door to the room is locked. She bangs on the door and screams to be let in, attracting the tenement adversary, Frowny Sarah. Frowny Sarah calls two coppers to haul away Mara who has been abandoned and is trespassing on the tenement. Mara struggles to escape and is cracked over the head. She wakes up enslaved in a garment factory posing as an orphanage with a room full of other captured girls.
Mara learns the unspoken rules of the girls and again finds herself lonely and outcast until a young girl, Katya, is thrown into the room screaming and clawing at the locked door. Katya knows she has not been abandoned by her mother but kidnapped. Mara befriends her and during the cold nights, Katya whispers to Mara about her happy, but impoverished life with her mother. Katya vows to escape and Mara vows to help her.
But Mara’s captors discover her exquisite skill as a seamstress and pull her from the group to sell to the supervisor of “the dark room” at a corrupt garment factory. Upon her arrival, she screams for Katya only to have her cries drowned out by the screeching machinery and suffer a beating. She creates expensive one-of-a-kind dresses, under the guise that she can “work off” her captivity and find freedom (and Katya.) Although the promises for freedom are never meant to be kept, she does earn the freedom of being unchained from her sewing machine.
While she is up one day for a stretch, looking out the window to the tracks, she sees (one of the street kids from her tenement?) (or the Russian glances her from within the factory) In any case, the Russian knows she is there and Mara knows she knows.
The Russian (choice: believes Mara “left” possibly after misinformation from Frowny Sarah OR she develops a friendship with the Irish woman as they search for Mara together in her absence) eventually “springs” Mara from the dark room. Mara learns that the Russian had come home late on the day of the disappearance because she was buying a chicken to share with Mara.
But Mara’s first concern upon her freedom is finding and freeing Katya. She searches the city and gains the support of the Irish mother’s son to help in the breakout.
The wrap up has to include: confronting Frowny Sarah, Confronting the Russian, Saving Katya, Owning her own talent/skill and demonstrating good future, being PART of a community and family.
She returns to the tenement room with the Russian and as a gesture of timid goodwill, the Russian gives her the Matryoshka? teaches her how to cook something?
The Plot Doctors fix:
Mara being the result of rape made her mother’s behavior credible in a way almost nothing else could have. And the sweatshops of the turn of the century are a horrific setting, and one that hasn’t been used much. You said you were considering changing the time period, but I really don’t think you need to—as it is, it brings in great possibilities for villainy and desperation.
There were a few things we did question. Even though Mara doesn’t know that “the Russian” is her mother, she would know, and generally refer to her by, her name. When Mara was very young, her mother might have taught Mara to call her by her first name, but she wouldn’t have taught her daughter (or anyone) to call her “the Russian.” That’s a nickname Anna-Maria and I felt Mara would have come up with on her own, as she got older. So for purposes of ease-in-synopsis-writing, I’m going to name the mother Sonia Dubov. Feel free to change that to anything you like.
The other thing we questioned was whether the psychological impact of raising your rapist’s child would be too tough a topic middle grade. I really, really liked that explanation for Sonia’s attitude toward Mara, so we decided to keep it. But we tried to be a bit indirect about it, and very inexplicit. If you wanted to bump this up to YA, you could easily be more explicit. As it is, this would certainly be an older middle grade—maybe even a tween novel. You didn’t name Mara’s age. With the plot we’re considering, she should probably be around 12 (older middle grade) and you could bump her up to 14 if you wanted to go tween. But if you do that, I think the book would probably end up in the YA category.
We also thought that the second synopsis you presented had more story potential, so we used more of that one for our template. You never said exactly who/what Finn was, but since you mentioned “newsies” and an Irish boy in the third story possibility, we decided to make Finn a reporter. If you want to make our reporter a completely new character, you can do that as well. But all that said, here’s the story we came up with. And I should also mention that you might want to add other scenes here and there to flesh things out. This is just the story’s spine, so to speak.
Background that will come out in the course of the story: Mara has been raised all her life by Sonia Dubov, who has told Mara that she has no birth date or last name, denied she was Mara’s mother, and has been very cold to her. When she was young Mara was desperate for Sonia’s love, and tried to earn it in all kinds of childish ways, only to be repeatedly rebuffed. After a time, Mara came to resent and even sometimes hate Sonia for her coldness. Mara came to think of her, not even as Sonia, but as “the Russian.” She made up all kinds of fantasies to account for how this woman came to raise her: The Russian was a gypsy, who kidnapped Mara and then kept her when her poor farmer parents couldn’t raise enough ransom. The Russian was a witch, who kidnapped Mara to raise as a sacrifice to the devil. The Russian was a servant of some Russian noble, maybe even the Tsar, who paid her to hide his bastard child in America. In her more realistic moments, Mara knows that having no last name means you’re either an orphan, abandoned, or a bastard—or some combination thereof—and she’s ashamed of that background.
More practically, Sonia works at the factory, which she has always told Mara is a terrible place. Mara is never to go there, and never even to think of working there. Sonia throws out a lot of orders. Don’t go out after dark, don’t do this, don’t do that. Mara only obeys the ones she wants to. But she seldom bothers to argue Sonia, because she always, always loses. It’s much easier just to slip out when Sonia is at work, and do as she likes. And Mara has to go out a lot, anyway, to sell her garters. Sonia smuggles scraps of fabric home from the factory under her skirts, and makes them into garters that she has taught Mara how to embroider beautifully. Sonia makes better wages at the factory than most, because she’s an expert beader, who works on the most beautiful expensive gowns. But when Mara says she could make more money embroidering at the factory, she is told never to think about it. (Unknown to Mara, this is because the conditions at the factory are so horrible. Orphans who are sold to the factory live on a separate floor, chained to their sewing machines* by day, locked in by night. And the factory floor boss is a pedophile, too. Which is a large part of Sonia’s reason for not wanting Mara anywhere near the place. Child workers with families, who’d miss them, are allowed to go home at night like everyone else.) Sonia’s most prized possession is a Matryoshka (set of Matryoshka?) with a particular and distinctive flower on them, found only in the part of Russia Sonia came from. Her father/grandfather/whoever painted those dolls, and no other Matryoshka have that flower.
*I’m assuming that you’ve checked the history, and that “chained to the sewing machine” thing actually happened? I know the workers were often locked in, but chained to the machines I hadn’t heard. If it’s not historically accurate, I’d drop the chains. But I suspect you’ve done your research and it’s true. And in that case, go for it.
Mara’s best friend is Katya, an orphan girl she found on the street, who also has a pet cat. Mara found her sleeping under a bridge, starving, and she let Katya help her sell some garters for a small share of the profits. (Katya can look very pathetic) Mara has smuggled Katya into the basement of the tenement where she lives, and found her a place behind the furnace where she can sleep safe and warm.
When the story opens, Katya and Mara are selling garters, and being hassled by one of the local street gangs. When the gang grows threatening, looking to rob Mara of the day’s take, Mara stalls them/tries to fight them off, while she sends Katya to run to safety. But Katya doesn’t just run away. She comes back with Finn, a “nosey guy” who’s been hanging around the neighborhood asking questions about the factory. Finn chases off the gang, and walks Mara and Katya back to their building. He asks their names, but neither will give him more than a first name. He buys a garter, and then asks if either of them knows anyone who works at the factory. They both say they know nothing—you don’t go talking to strangers, not in this neighborhood, not if you know what’s good for you. They refuse to invite Finn into the building.
When Sonia comes home, Mara tells her what happened, and Sonia tells Mara that she was right to say nothing, that she should never trust a stranger. (This is the chapter where we can see their relationship in action, and maybe find out a bit about the past.) Mara says that the factory can’t be more dangerous than selling garters on the streets—and she’d make more money working there. Sonia says Mara’s never going to the factory, and she won’t hear another word about it. Mara thinks Sonia is trying to keep the money/safer life for herself.
The next morning, when she’s hawking her garters, Finn shows up again. He tracked down the fabric of the garter he bought, and he knows it came from the factory. He tells Mara that he’s a reporter, and he’s trying to investigate conditions in the factory, but the owners won’t let him go in and no one who works there will talk to him. He asks Mara if her mother would speak with him. Mara says, “She’s not my mother. And she won’t.” Finn says he’d pay for information. In fact, the factory takes child workers. If Mara would go in and report back to him, he’d pay her lots of money. The idea of “lots of money” is tempting. She could make more than Sonia—that would show her! But Mara knows there’s no way Sonia would allow it, and she refuses.
When she gets home, Mara sees Frowny Sarah putting out poison for the rats and mice, and she realizes that if Katya’s pet cat (a champion ratter) eats a poisoned rat it would kill the cat. She argues with Sarah about it, but Sarah calls her on the fact that Mara doesn’t have a cat. Sarah, who has seen Katya visiting Mara’s room with her pet, becomes suspicious.
Mara invites Katya and her cat up to her room, to warn her about Sarah poisoning the rats, and offers to keep the cat there when they go out, so the cat will be safe. But later, when Katya arrives in the evening to pick up the cat, Sonia comes in and catches them. She refuses to keep the cat in their rooms. Cats shed. Katya flees, but Sonia and Mara have an escalating quarrel—which really erupts when Mara admits she’s been giving some of the profits from her garter sales to Katya. Sonia forbids her to have anything to do with Katya, ever again—if Mara’s going to live with her, off the money she makes, Mara has to obey her rules! Mara is furious, but Sonia pays the rent and brings home garter materials. If Sonia throws her out, Mara might fall prey to the orphan hunters. That’s why she always loses in arguments with Sonia.
Then Katya vanishes. Mara checks the basement where Katya sleeps and finds the basement door broken open. The downstairs neighbors tell her that the orphan-hunters came, and grabbed a squatter girl out of the basement. Mara believes that Sonia has turned Katya into the hunters, and confronts her, refusing to believe Sonia’s denial. Sonia says she didn’t do it, but disobedient as Mara is, maybe it’s for the best to have Katya out of her life. Mara decides she must rescue her friend, even it Sonia throws her out for it.
Mara knows that the orphan-hunters sell girls to the factory, and she asks Sonia for help in getting Katya back. Sonia tells her that there’s nothing she can do. Nothing anyone can do. Selling orphans to factories is legal, and besides, she doesn’t dare risk her own job.
Mara goes to Finn, and demands his help. He tells her that Sonia’s right, it is legal. The only way he could help Katya is to find out that the conditions in the factory are so bad that the factory owners could be shamed by his paper into releasing the kids. Mara agrees to go into the factory and spy for him…thinking that she might find a way to break Katya out.
Finn takes Mara to the factory and gets her hired, posing as her father. That way he assures that she’ll be released at night to report to him.
In the factory, conditions are indeed horrible. Mara reports to Finn several times, and he shows her where his newspaper office is, in case she needs to reach him. During the time she works in the factory, Mara (who is mostly looking for Katya and trying to figure out how to break her out) has several things happen. We don’t have these in any particular order, but: First, Mara has to find out where Sonia works, so she can avoid her. (I see the factory as kind of a maze, at least four, maybe five floors.) Sonia works in a beading shop, where fine finishing is done. The pedophile floor boss makes not-too-explicit passes at Mara, horrifying her, and they get more threatening as time goes on. His boss tells him, “She has a father. Save it for the orphans.” Which Mara finds really horrifying. Mara gains the attention of the floor bosses with some quick hand sewing, and they learn she can do fine embroidery. She is promoted from the machines to an embroidery shop, where she’s given a bit more freedom, sometimes sent on errands. She learns that there are several freight elevators that move piles of garments, fabric etc. from one floor to another. An adult might not fit onto them, but children could. She goes down to the basement, and leaves some sort of message for Katya (picture of a cat, if she can’t write) behind the furnace, hoping Katya, who slept behind the furnace in her building, might look there if she ever had a chance. A delivery of coal tumbling down the chute startles her. She learns that the orphans are all locked in on the choose-a-number floor, and all the doors that lead there are locked. There are also guards on the ground floor, always, and they scan departing workers to see that they aren’t stealing. Mara realizes how much risk Sonia took, smuggling out even small scraps for the garters, and has to acknowledge her courage. I figure this would take her roughly a week, and maybe more.
Mara finally manages to sneak up to the orphan’s floor with a load of cloth, and finds Katya—but then she is caught and imprisoned in the attic—chained there. She says that her father will come looking for her. The floor boss says that they’ll tell him she ran away, and eventually he’ll have to believe it. But until they’re sure the father’s not going to make trouble, he’ll leave her be. It probably won’t take long.
Mara knows that sooner or later Finn will give up on her. He’s not really her father, so he can’t demand the factory produce her. Eventually he’ll probably believe she did run away. As she spends her days embroidering, and watching the floor boss eye her every time he delivers a new load of garments, she’s terrified. Then she’s given a gorgeous wedding gown to embroider, the kind of garment that will certainly be beaded. She sews the distinctive flower that’s on Sonia’s Matryoshka dolls into patterns all over the dress, praying Sonia will see it and come to her rescue.
It takes several days to embroider the gown. Once she finishes, she waits several more days hoping/praying Sonia gets her message. At this point she’s been held captive for almost a week, but she realizes that she actually trusts Sonia more than she trusts Finn. Sonia might be cold and autocratic, but she was always there. She never left Mara, never let her go hungry—and never let her even think of working at the factory! In fact, Mara now realizes that a lot of the rules/orders she so resented were probably intended to keep her safe. She may have turned Katya in, but she’s never abandoned Mara.
Finally, the floor boss bangs open the attic door and stumbles in, drunk. Mara opens her mouth to scream…and Sonia walks quietly into the room behind the floor boss, and whacks him on the head with a hammer. He falls unconscious—might die, might not. She doesn’t care. She has a chisel, as well as the hammer, and she was going to use them to break the chain, but now she can use the floor boss’s keys. Sonia tells Mara that there were too many locked doors for her to reach the attic before this, but when floor boss started drinking, she knew that he would go after Mara that night. She hid herself in the factory when everyone had gone, and then just followed him. After she unlocks the shackle, she hugs Mara for the first time in her life. “I couldn’t let it happen to you, too,” Sonia tells her. But now they have to get out. Sonia has found a hiding place for them in the factory, and if she fakes illness shortly after everyone else comes in, she thinks she and Mara could get out, Mara supposedly helping her home.
Mara says that won’t work, because she won’t leave without Katya. In fact, she wants to get all of the orphans out. Every last one of them. Sonia says it’s impossible, but Mara argues with her, saying they can’t leave those girls to the floor boss. And for the first time, she wins an argument with Sonia. Sonia says if Mara can figure out a way to get them out before dawn, then she’ll help.
They go to the floor where the orphans are locked in—easy, with the floor boss’s keys. A tearfully grateful Katya welcomes them both, and reveals to Mara that when the orphan hunters came for her, they paid Frowny Sara for tipping them off. Mara is ashamed of doubting Sonia, but Sonia brushes her apologies aside. They still have to find a way to get past the guards on the ground floor, but Mara’s had time to figure that out. One load at a time, all the orphans ride the small freight elevators down to the basement, where they climb up the coal chute and (crowbar or other tools in the basement) break open the doors above the chute. Then all the girls climb up the chute (maybe a ladder in the basement too) and out into the night—dawn not far off now.
Mara leads them to Finn’s newspaper office. The whole crowd of orphans is waiting on the steps as the people arrive to open the office. With so many witnesses, so many stories to be told, Finn grabs a dozen sympathetic/horrified/outraged reporters to help him interview the orphans—those factory bastards will pay, when this story comes out! But he wants to interview Mara, his heroine, and Sonia himself. He starts “establishing the basic facts first” by asking Sonia for her full name and date of birth and she tells him. The he asks Mara the same questions. Mara starts to say, “I don’t have—” but Sonia interrupts her. “Mara Dubov,” says Sonia. “And she was born on May 14th, 1895.” (I’m thinking she’s about 12, myself, but whatever.) And aside from Mara’s emotional reaction to realizing that her mother has finally claimed her, I think that’s pretty much the end of the story.
Sonia moves from being totally emotionally divorced from the child she bore after being raped, though the catharsis of saving that child from the same fate (maybe even killing the would be rapist, though you don’t need to stress that for middle grade) and is finally able to begin to love her daughter. And Mara moves from resenting the cold and strict “Russian” to realizing that Sonia did the best she could for her, and has always been there for her, to being saved by her mother—and then successfully standing up to Sonia for the first time, and ultimately being claimed by her, and given the last name and birthday that mark her as part of a real family.
And there is so much here, that has such powerful emotional possibilities—we think you could do really great things with this story.