This Newbery Honor book from 2012 was an excellent look at life in Stalin’s Russia from the viewpoint of a young boy whose unwavering and unquestioning support of Stalin is suddenly stripped from him after his beloved father is arrested. The scene setting was fabulously done, some of the best “you are there” I’ve seen. I loved that the author didn’t spell things out for the reader. We are solidly in Sasha’s head the entire time, but he leaves clues that Sasha may not fully understand everything. The neighbors that he is convinced “respect” his father, for instance, are clearly scared instead. Or when Sasha pities the poor little capitalist children who have probably never been given a carrot as a treat. Some of these are very subtle, and I’m not entirely sure how a child with no background knowledge about Stalinist Russia will be able to fully understand everything that is going on, but I can also see that it’s not entirely necessary to fully grasp every single nuance to appreciate the book. I have seen some criticism that no space is given to other viewpoints, or the possibility that Sasha’s father really is working against the Stalin regime, but that does not bother me, since the viewpoint is so firmly Sasah’s it is easy to recognize that we are not getting the entire picture. It’s not important whether the father is guilty or not, what is important is Sasha’s reaction.
I did think the episode with the talking Stalin’s nose was significantly out of join with the rest of the novel. The other parts of the book are so solidly grounded in real experience to have this strange and surreal episode – is he hallucinating from the stress? really? – threw me out of the story completely. I wish it had not been included, the entire book would have been stronger as a result. There is a small part of me that thinks that Sasha is too quickly brought to action against everything he believes in (the book takes places only over a 24 hour period) but it’s mentioned that Vovka underwent a similarly overnight transformation under similar circumstances, and extremely high stress coupled with complex insights can be transformative.