At her home down the street from the Soviet embassy in Washington, Elliott Holt was fascinated by the news of Samantha Smith’s trip to the Soviet Union 30 years ago this month.

Samantha was a 10-year-old student at Manchester Elementary when she wrote to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, worried about the prospect of nuclear war — only two years older than Holt. She seemed charming and precocious, but also normal, like someone Holt might be friends with if they ever met.

“Like a lot of kids my age, I was really worried about nuclear war,” Holt said. “I just remember when the news broke out about Samantha. I thought it was really inspiring and amazing that a kid who’s only 10 was an ambassador.”

While Samantha’s story has faded from the memories of most people around her, it lingered in Holt’s mind and provided the germ of the story for her first novel, “You Are One of Them,” published in May.

The book tells the story of two girls, Sarah Zuckerman and Jenny Jones, growing up in Washington during the Cold War. Both of them write letters to Andropov, urging him to seek peace, but only Jenny receives a response.

Like Samantha, Jenny accepts an invitation to visit the Soviet Union, becomes internationally famous and dies in a plane crash in 1985.


Sarah feels left behind, especially after Jenny’s death. Then in 1995, she receives a letter from someone who spent time with Jenny in Russia, suggesting that Jenny is still alive. Sarah travels to Moscow to try to learn the truth.

Holt, who lived in Moscow from 1997 to 1999, said Sarah arrives there with a Cold War mindset, expecting to see spies everywhere.

“She’s kind of served up this story that she really wants to believe,” Holt said. “It would be really nice to believe that her friend is still alive and that the sort of falling-out that they had was due to much larger political forces, but that doesn’t mean that it’s true.”

The book deals with themes of grief, loss, the inherent rivalries in friendships and the human desire to revisit one’s past, Holt said.

“You Are One of Them” has received positive reviews from several publications, including Publishers Weekly and The New York Times.

Other than a general interest in Cold War history and a sense of identification with Samantha Smith, Holt is not sure why Samantha’s story captured her imagination so strongly. But she’s found that’s not common among her peers.


She said her Russian friends are more likely to remember Samantha, who represented the United States for them.

“Nowadays, you can tweet at a world leader,” Holt said. “It’s hard for people to remember, I think, what an incredibly big news story it was for a 10-year-old girl to receive a letter from Andropov and be invited by the Kremlin. It’s equally as sensational as if a 10-year-old girl wrote to Kim Jong Un today.”

Samantha is probably remembered more often in Maine. A portrait of her hangs at Manchester Elementary School and a statue stands outside the Maine State Museum, which also has a collection of items related to her trip.

Samantha’s mother, Jane Smith, lives in Boothbay and says she receives occasional letters and requests about her daughter. There was a flurry of them this week, the 30th anniversary of Samantha’s return from the Soviet Union.

“For Russians, they had a chapter in every school child’s English book about Samantha in the fifth form or something,” Smith said. “For a while, every Soviet knew.”

Smith said she hasn’t read “You Are One of Them,” though she has a copy that was sent to her.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
[email protected]

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