The Twelve Little Cakes by Dominika Dery

I have had this memoir on my TBR shelf for a long time, but I finally got the urge to go ahead and read it when Brown Bear Daughter left about a week ago to go back to Slovakia for her third summer mission trip there. Dominika Dery’s memoir of her childhood lived under Communist rule in a village on the outskirts of Prague, Czechoslovakia, obviously doesn’t take place in Slovakia, but rather in the Czech Republic. However, it’s as close as I can get right now. (Does anyone know a really good book, fiction or memoir, set in Slovakia?)

Dominika grew up in a loving home with her mother, a writer of technical reports, and her father, a former economist who is now a taxi-driver, and her much-older sister, who comes across mostly as a spoiled brat and a world-class flirt. Dominika herself seems to be somewhat spoiled, but not a brat. The parents are dissidents associated with the 1968 failed “revolution” called the Prague Spring, which ended when the Russians invaded to stop the reforms of Communism that were being instituted in Czechoslovakia. As a result of their complicity in the Prague Spring reforms, Dominika’s parents are consigned to low level jobs and constantly in danger of being denounced to the political authorities.

Dominika, born in 1975, slowly becomes aware over the course of her childhood of her parents’ political predicament, but she nevertheless remembers a mostly idyllic childhood enlivened by the resilient optimism of her father and the style and panache of her beautiful mother. Even when the family goes on vacation to Poland of all places and the car breaks down because some corrupt mechanic replaced the working engine with a defective one, Dominika and her parents manage to have a good and memorable holiday under ostensibly trying circumstances.

I think I’ll loan this book to Dancer Daughter(23) because of the Czech setting (she’s been to Slovakia a couple of times, too) and also because Dominika spends a lot of her childhood studying to become a dancer. The story of how she gets into a dance school that normally excludes the children of dissidents and only admits children whose parents have Communist Party connections is fascinating, and Dominika’s indomitable spirit is sure to charm the readers of her memoir.

The book ends in 1985 when Dominika was only ten years old. But it seems an appropriate place to stop. Dominika has been accepted to study at the State Conservatory in Prague. Her parents are still stuck in political limbo, but there is some stirring of hope for the future. Things are beginning to change, with the Solidarity movement in Poland and Mikhail Gorbachev‘s rise to power in the Soviet Union. In November-December 1989, The Velvet or Gentle Revolution restored democracy in Czechoslovakia. In 1993, Czechoslovakia became two separate nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

From an adult looking back at childhood point of view, Dominika Dery sees things this way:

“This was the country of little cakes and sausages. This is the memory of my childhood. Driving back home in our old, rusty Skoda; my father’s big hands steering us safely through the night; the soft touch of my mother’s hand on my head. This was the happiest time in my life. The time when we had no money, no choice and no chance.

It would take me another eighteen years to realize that what we had back then was as much as anyone on earth would ever need.

We had each other, and plenty of love in our hearts.”

Twelve Little Cakes by Dominika Dery was recommended by Kerry at Shelf Elf.

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