2002 reissue of 2001 release, Historical Fiction (1940s USSR)
HarperTorch, $7.99, 902 pages, Amazon ASIN 0061031127 Part of a series
I define a "Desert Isle Keeper" as a book that sticks in my mind long after I’ve read the last page, a book I’ll re-read and think about, one I’d recommend to all and sundry. Usually I can give someone lots of information about a DIK read – but not in this case. This is one of the most challenging reviews I’ve set out to write. I can’t tell much of the plot without entering "spoiler" territory, and I can’t explain why I had such a visceral reaction after I’d finished reading it, for the same reason. What I can do, however, is lay out the basic premise of the story and highlight a few of the elements I encountered that appealed to me, and hope they appeal to you, too.
The story opens on a sunny Sunday: June 22, 1941, the day Hitler's Germany and the Soviet Union declare war on each other. The Metanov family lives in a cramped apartment, seven adults in two rooms, sharing a communal kitchen and bathroom with several other families – typical of the times. Youngest daughter Tatiana, just shy of seventeen, is sent out by her parents to buy food before rationing goes into effect. But our Tania is something of a daydreamer, and she’s sitting at a bus stop enjoying an ice cream, when she looks across the street and notices a young Red Army officer staring at her. He crosses the street and gets on the same bus; they start a conversation and spend the afternoon together. The attraction between the two is instant, strong, and undeniable. The soldier’s name is Alexander, and he and his friend Dmitri help Tania with her shopping. When they return to the Metanovs’ tiny apartment, Tania learns to her chagrin that Alexander is the fellow her older sister Dasha has been seeing lately, and Dasha’s told Tania she’s in love. Tania and Alexander make an unspoken, mutual decision to say nothing, and from this conflict flows the rest of the story.
There. That’s it. That’s all I can say directly of the plot without giving anything away. Let me turn to the setting and historical context in which events unfold. The Germans quickly surround Leningrad, and within weeks the food shortages in the city become acute. Some people, like Tania’s grandparents, leave while they can, but most remain, and by the fall the population begins to get hungry. Tania wishes she’d heeded Alexander’s instructions the first day they met and he took her shopping: "Buy as if you’re never going to see any of these goods again." The Metanovs rely heavily on Alexander, who uses his officer’s privileges to get them extra food, but even that isn’t enough. As fall blends into winter the problem grows more acute. The meager bread rations have cardboard and sawdust filler in them. There are no more cats or dogs in the city. Water pipes freeze. The power goes out. People die, literally in the streets, right before Tania’s eyes as she trudges out to scrounge what little food she can. Simons has the ability to put the reader right in the middle of all this, to experience Tania’s growing numbness as she moves beyond hunger and into starvation, to witness the growing numbness she develops, as indeed she must in order to survive. And through it all, there’s Dasha, clinging for life like a millstone around Tania’s neck, and Alexander, just out of Tania’s reach. This is all she has to live for – but is it worth it?
Tania is a real survivor, and this appears to surprise her as much as it does everyone else. Written off as the "extra child," she’s never had a chance to prove her worth to her family, but in the crisis she turns out to be the toughest Metanov of them all. She’s naïve in many ways, but in others she has a wisdom belied by her years. Simons uses her to show the black humor that is a trait of many Russians; Tania tells lots of jokes that poke fun of the situations she finds herself in, in an attempt to make the unbearable bearable. She can find the courage to do the unthinkable, because "somebody has to do it," yet she can’t bring herself to come clean to Dasha about Alexander. Tania learns the virtues of stoicism and determination early on, and sticks to her guns.
As for Alexander, he’s everything he seems, and nothing like what he appears to be. He’s the best kind of romantic hero: young, tall, handsome, intelligent, brave, steadfast. But he has an enormous secret, literally life-threatening – and he learns too late that he’s trusted the wrong person with it. But he senses he can share it with Tania; the scene where he tells her about his last meeting with his father is tear-enducingly poignant. He would do anything to save those he loves, and he takes enormous risks to help the Metanovs – especially Tania. Alexander is an all-around admirable guy (well, okay, so he’s a chain-smoker, but this was Russia in 1941 – who wasn’t?).
The other characters are fairly realistic. Dmitri comes off as a prototypical "Soviet man," unable to see anything save his own self-interest. Dasha, for all that she’s central to the story, remains a little difficult to see; she borders on being a caricature rather than a character. Tania’s family and neighbors are as developed as they need to be, which is to say adequately, with the exception of her cousin Marina, whom the reader comes to know a bit better. A very large chunk of the book is dialogue, and it sounds fresh and realistic. Simons has a terrific ear for natural speech patterns and uses dialogue to show character and advance the story in an effective manner.
I ripped through this book almost non-stop, doubtless damaging my already fragile eyesight in the process. I couldn’t wait to get to the end – and I stopped dead with fifty pages to go, mouth gaping, heart racing, silently screaming in disbelief. To tell you why would spoil things. I’ve re-read those last couple of chapters, and I find there’s the slightest glimmer of hope for a satisfying resolution; besides, an exhaustive Internet search leads me to believe a sequel is in the works, which mollifies me. But only just.
All in all, the ride to the end is well worth the bumpy conclusion. I urge you to read The Bronze Horseman. If the price tag is too steep for you, check it out of the library; if they don’t have it, ask them to get it, read their copy, and then buy the paperback when it comes out next year. You can refresh your memory just in time for the sequel.
There had better be a sequel.
-- Nora Armstrong
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