Communism, the Cold War, and Josef Stalin have loomed large in the children’s book scene over the last year: all three Newbery books have a Cold War connection, and one of the most notable YA books of the year (nominated in more than one ALA category), is based on a true story of Soviet oppression. Today I’m reviewing that YA novel, as well as the third book honored by the Newbery committee this year (the other two are here and here). It’s about time that Communism was recognized for the insidious evil it is, but be warned that the subject doesn’t make for cheerful reading.
Breaking Stalin’s Nose, written and illustrated by Eugene Yelchin. Henry Holt & Company: 2011, 154 pages. Age/interest level: 10-up
- Worldview/Moral value: 3
- Artistic value: 4.5
Sasha Zaichik, age 10, is writing a gushy letter to Comrade Stalin when the story opens—his naiveté should be charming but very soon it turns creepy:
It’s dinnertime, so the kitchen is crowded. Forty-eight hardworking, honest Soviet citizens share the kitchen and single small toilet in our communal apartment we call komunalka for short. We live here as one large, happy family: we are all equal; we have no secrets. We know who gets up at what time, who eats what for dinner, and who said what in their rooms. The walls are thin; some don’t go up to the ceiling. We even have a room cleverly divided with shelves of books about Stalin that two families can share.
Stalin says that sharing our living space teaches us to think as Communist “WE” instead of capitalist “I”. We agree. In the morning, we often sing patriotic songs together when we line up for the toilet.
This is Chapter Two in its entirety. Yelchin’s format blends words with pictures almost as extensively as Brian Selznick does (The Invention of Hugo Cabret; Wonderstruck), so the story itself is very short but incredibly punchy. Sasha longs for the day when his father, a junior-level government official, will tie the red scarf that signifies the boy’s official induction into the Young Pioneers. But on the eve of that very day, his father is arrested (we never know why), their tiny two-room apartment taken over by the unctuous neighbor who informed on Dad, and Sasha is suddenly homeless. Over the next 24 hours he wanders the street, spends a night in the basement, and goes to school with every expectation that the arrest was a mistake and that Dad will arrive any moment to drape him with the red scarf. In spite of many ominous signs, he reassures himself until the moment something terrible happens (related to the title) and suspicions start popping like firecrackers. Sasha’s illusions pop likewise, one after another, until he has almost none left. A single but huge act of kindness redeems a grim situation at the very end, but by then our hopes are so perforated we can hardly believe in it.
Though a beautiful meld of text and image, told with economy and precision, Breaking Stalin’s Nose is so sad I hesitate to recommend it for the age level (teens might benefit more) except for the fact that it might be the only clue of these dark days that some children will ever get. And it raises important questions, such as, did an evil man distort a just ideology, or did the ideology enable an evil man? History can suggest an answer: however equable Communism may seem on paper, its track record stinks. Stalin ruled by a fear that’s palpable on every page of this little story, but it was the ideology that robbed people of their identity and will, and ultimately their power. Stalin’s image rules; Sasha’s face is never seen until the end. It’s as if there is no such person, only a receptacle of slogans and propaganda, until the last illusion falls. Good for him, but what about everybody else?
- Worldview/Moral value: 4
- Artistic value: 4
June 14, 1941, Kaunas, Lithuania: “They took me in my nightgown.” Fifteen-year-old Lina had no preparation for what would happen that night, but looking back, it added up: her parents had already helped her father’s brother and his family escape to Germany, and hoped to escape themselves. But the Soviets came first. Lina had twenty minutes to gather her things—“Davai! Davai!”–and glance at herself in the bathroom mirror. “It was the last time I would look into a real mirror for more than a decade.”
Through the eyes of one girl, a chronicle of the fate of the Baltic nations under Stalin: “anti-Soviets” rounded up, deported, shot, and starved, then wiped from the records as though they had never existed. Lina’s face disappears from the mirror as though disappearing from history. It was worse than Nazi concentration camps, in a way—those came to an end within a few years. But the Soviet incarceration of millions of human beings, arbitrarily condemned–that went on and on. In Lina’s case, for twelve years: thirteen months in a labor camp in Siberia, the remainder in Trofimousk, on the Arctic Sea—out of sight and mind of man, but not God.
The story is told in details—fresh bread left behind on the table of the family home; boys on the train smoking pages of The Pickwick Papers; a woman taken from a hospital only minutes after giving birth; Lina’s last words with her father through the latrine hole of a boxcar; a letter from home so precious that everyone passes it around and kisses the stamp; brother Jonas pulled back from the ravages of scurvy by a can of tomatoes. Lina draws it all. Her art is a subversive act—sometimes a raised fist, sometimes a heartbroken tribute.
Like Breaking Stalin’s Nose, the story is drawn from the experiences of the author’s relatives and friends. Such things really happened. Throughout the narrative, you have to wonder: How did people cope? Many didn’t. Others survived for months and years before surrendering their tenuous hold on life. Nina wonders how her mother can give and give and forgive and forgive—but “love reveals to us the truly miraculous nature of the human spirit” (author note).
The human spirit is miraculous, in the sense that it defies atheistic materialism. Something in us believes and hopes and refuses to give up, though the novel is noncommittal about what that Something is. There is not much direct “God talk,” even though Psalms are read and prayers are prayed. But even when the human body is treated like rubbish—“Every time the train pulled away, we left a litter of corpses in our wake”—there is no doubt about the human soul. In a flashback, Lina recalls seeing her face in a rain puddle, which
shimmered around me, creating a beautiful frame around my face. I wished I could photograph it to draw later. Suddenly, a faint shadow appeared behind my head in the puddle. I turned around. A pastel rainbow arched out of the clouds.
Even in deepest gloom, redemptive moments shine: “Just as I would swing into the abyss of hopelessness, the pendulum would swing back with some small goodness.” Small goodness is what makes both these books worth reading, though the context is unrelievedly grim. Between Shades of Gray also contains mild profanity and frank acknowledgment of helpless women using sex for preferment (though this isn’t shown, only referred to). Parents, as always, should use their judgment about what would be profitable for their kids, but all of us should recognize the parameters of evil, and how God works within it.