July 30, 2012

Breaking Stalin's Nose

by Eugene Yelchin
ages: 9+
First sentence: "My dad is a hero and a Communist and, more than anything, I want to be like him."
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Sasha lives in Moscow, in Stalinist USSR, and wants to be exactly like his dad, a member of the State Security. The first step, of course, is joining the Young Pioneers.

Except, on the day when he was supposed to be inducted and everything was supposed to go just perfectly, Sasha's world falls apart. First, his father gets arrested in the middle of the night; but Sasha figures it's just a mistake. Then, his aunt won't take him in. But at school, things get really weird. It doesn't help that he accidentally breaks the nose off a Stalin statue -- a federal offense, punishable by death -- in the hall, which sets off a chain of events that leads to a basic revelation: maybe Stalin isn't all that Sasha thought he was.

On the one hand, I can see how this is an important book. Instead of showing the horrors of Stalinism (and there are many) from the concentration camps (see Between Shades of Gray for that), it shows what it was like for an ordinary Soviet citizen. One who thought himself, and his family, to be in Stalin's good graces. And who, like many ordinary Russians back then, got caught up in a web of conspiracies and lies that wrecked his life.

This should have been a powerful story. One of courage in the face of hopelessness and helplessness. Except, in many ways, this slim novel (which was gorgeously illustrated, by the way), it just didn't live up to its potential. If was was being uncharitable, I would say that Yelchin didn't quite know how to  handle a tough topic like this for younger readers. But, I'm not sure that's what it is. See, this is really a confusing little book; as a reader, you never know quite what to believe or whom to trust, and I think that was done intentionally. It felt like Yelchin wanted to capture the sense of confusion, of suspicion, of mistrust that existed in the USSR back then. In that, he succeeded, though I'm not sure how well.

I'm not sure how much sense I'm making. The bottom line is this: I get what Yelchin was trying to do with his book, but I'm not sure 9-year-old kids will. However, this one will be the jumping point for a lot of discussion, not just on the USSR and history, but on following the crowd versus doing your own thing.

Which makes it very much worth your time.

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