A Single Desperate Prayer
by Ludmila Ritz

"Orphanage life was good. I no longer missed street life, and my craving for cigarettes had finally passed. I was happy to be with my sister and to have good food to eat. Even better, I didn’t have to beg or do sexual favors to get it."

This is an engaging and often upsetting portrait of growing up in Ukraine in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Young Ludmila has no memory of her grandparents, who have already died when the story begins. Her mother—beautiful, fragile, and overburdened—copes with the stress of raising two girls by injecting heroin. Ludmila and her younger sister, Alyona, live in squalid conditions. Perpetually hungry, they’re forced to beg on the streets for food. At the age of nine, Ludmila learns that she can acquire large amounts of money by performing sexual favors for a local pervert. The bleakness of the children’s situation is only leavened by occasional visits with an aunt who lives in the suburbs.

When their mother takes her own life, Ludmila and Alyona take up residence in an orphanage. Introduced to Jesus by some evangelicals, Ludmila makes friends and begins to excel in school. She encounters boys, becomes conscious of her appearance, and is eventually adopted by an American family.

Written in deceptively simplistic prose, the book’s great strength is the arc that its heroine follows from orphanhood to maturity, from poverty to adoption. Rather brilliantly, Ritz’s story is structured in such a way that it mirrors the main emotional beats of Dickens’ great novel David Copperfield—the death of a mother, the desperation of street life, the discovery of artistic gifts, the acquisition of social status, and the joy of being welcomed into a new family. These beats arranged in this way can never fail to touch the heart, and Ritz’s unsentimental portrayal of drug addiction, sexual abuse, and suicide adds a powerful modern gloss to what is, at its core, a coming-of-age story. This is a book to make one grateful to live in an advanced nation, featuring a heroine of uncommon strength and resilience.

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