Synopsis: Ten-year-old Sasha is a fervently loyal Stalinist, who is excited to become a part of the Young Pioneers (Stalin's youth organization) and extremely proud of his father, who works for the State Security (secret police). They live with 46 other people in a communal flat/apartment, happy -from Sasha's perspective- that they are the living epitome of Stalin's ideals. Then, in the middle of the night, the secret police come and roughly haul away his father. What follows is a quick succession of events that has Sasha questioning his loyalty and the validity of the system.
The action of this fairly quick and completely gripping story takes place over the course of only one evening and the following day. It's a book that contains important issues such as freedom (or the lack of it), paranoia, propaganda, idealism vs. reality, standing for right (or not).
Here are some thoughts I had as I read:
- I think Yelchin does a very admirable job of tackling his subject from a naive ten-year-old's perspective. It's a genius approach, reminiscent of Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, where the limits of the young protagonist's understanding and maturity throws a spotlight on the horrors going on around them. What Yelchin seems to steer away from are Sasha's emotions. Deliberate devise or not, I think it's genius to downplay them, because again, it throws the spotlight onto the world in which he lives. The buildup of paranoia and hysteria that exists in the book -created by living in such a system- engulfs the reader in their own emotions. I think it would be completely overwhelming if we had to deal with both sets of emotions at once, especially for the targeted reading age group.
- In the beginning, Sasha is the perfect little Communist, just as he's been trained from baby-hood. Even as people are betraying his family, he doesn't feel a sense of betrayal, rather he admires their patriotism. There are also a few instances where Sasha has to choose to take a stand for right, and you can't help having empathy for his choices. (You will have to read the book to understand this in context.) I think it's a credit to Yelchin's writing ability that he can make us empathize with a boy with whom we have ostensibly very little in common.
- It's interesting to me how the author subtly shows the disconnect between child and adult. Here is Sasha's father, who has trained him to be a good little Communist from birth, and yet somehow expects him to know where the inconsistencies lie between the dogma and reality. It's a mistake we parents frequently make: assuming that our young children can see and understand those subtleties and inconsistencies.
- Yelchin, through young Sasha, gets to the heart of why this period of Russian history is known as The Great Terror: what happens to society as a whole and the individuals within it when every infraction is treated like it's the very worst possible crime? What happens when people are kept in such a state of terror and propaganda that they don't even realize they are the victims?
- The illustrations are dark, and have an exaggerated quality that perfectly accompanies the exaggerated paranoia. (There's an ironic one on pages 106-107 depicting the principal as Hitler.) The illustrations are reminiscent of Communist propaganda posters from the era. The other interesting thing to note is that we only see Sasha from the back or side -always turned away from the viewer- throughout the book, until we finally see his face for the first time on p. 137, just before the end.
- This book would make an excellent accompaniment to history lessons about that era for children age 10 and up. I'd have high schoolers read it as part of a Russian history unit. I think it would also make excellent book club reading.