Gregory Maguire, best known for his Wicked books, is back with another revisionist fairy tale. This time, he weaves together classic Russian elements — Baba Yaga, Faberge eggs, endless train tracks, snow laden countryside — in this middle grade novel.
Elena is a young girl who lives in a dying country town. There is no money, no food and even less hope. Her mother is delirious with illness and hunger. Then one day a train carrying a wealthy, noble family enroute to see the Tsar is forced to stop on the tracks while a bridge ahead is repaired. It’s a tiny town of privilege rolling through barren destitution. Hungry herself and in search of something to sustain her existence for even one more day, Elena dares to visit the train, a sleeping hulk of iron on the wintry prairie. And its most important occupant is a girl name Ekaterina. Cat could be Elena’s double, the other half, the other life she might have had.
The two strike up a bizarre friendship, both lacking the skills to interact the way regular children might. Each has a simplistic philosophy that belies their young age and through their conversation, the reader can see the vast differences between their worlds. Then, in a moment, their worlds shift. Cat falls off the train as it jerks away. Elena is pulled into the train carriage and off they go. Tempted by the plush surroundings and hearty meals, she decides to not correct anyone until morning. And then another day…
The novel adopts an aloof, all-knowing tone that all cautionary tales must in order to instruct their reader.
But children have a hard time imagining dangers they’ve never met before. They turned, with that curiosity to know. An instinct that betrays children and their elders every day of the universe’s long life. Lot’s salty wife on her road, Pandora’s itchy imagination. ~ Pg. 22
And true to Russian style, lush descriptions abound:
She walked back and forth in the reception room overlooking the street, and then leaned against a French wallpaper that showed Pagan temples in Elysian fields. Every eighteen inches, another pantheon in the greenery. A world lousy with ineffectual gods. ~Pg. 326
The witch used her sword to open the window latch on the ceiling. The panel of glass swung inward. A few jonquils and hyacinths and some green leaves of grapevine fell in. The witch recoiled as if they were poison ivy or, worse yet, blooms from a wedding nosegay. She shrank back into a corner of the izba as the kitten bounded from a toppled wardrobe to the leg of an upended table, and from there to the window and out into the springtime. ~Pg. 154
And Maguire weaves together dozens of fantastic folktales and bits of legend from the ancient, expansive country.
Thanks to Raquel at Candlewick Press for the review copy.
Age Range: 12 and up Grade Level: 7 and up
Hardcover: 496 pages
Publisher: Candlewick (September 9, 2014)
Gothic short stories are such an effective means to scare and enlighten ourselves. Small glimpses into unusual situations make us wonder how we’d handle a bit of the supernatural in our lives too.
And one can tell a lot about a culture and what they fear by reading its stories. These tales, selected from the 20th century Russia, display even more bravery as such “low-brow” literature was dangerous to write.
The opening story, In the Mirror shows a people that are struggling with identity — both their own and understanding who others are. How does one maintain sanity when it’s not clear what is real? What has happened to their country’s identity? What are the rules of society? In a relatively brief period of time, a centuries-old monarchy was toppled and replaced with an angered but uncentered people. This confusion is reflected in the writing:
From that moment, my life as a reflection began. A strange, half-conscious, but secretly pleasurable life. There was many of us in that mirror: dark souls, slumbering minds. Although we could not speak to each other, we sensed one another’s nearness, we loved each other. …
A game of cat-and-mouse began. At any moment I could hurl her back into the depths of the glass and myself venture once more into the real world of sounds and solid things. ~ Pg 32.
The Phantom by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky are reminiscent of Frankenstein, obsessed with early medicine.
In moving to the country, to a rural district, the young doctor Twoman-Skilifsky intended to divide his time between people and book, between clinic and his library. He carried several parcels of uncut books around with him. But the war interfered with his plans: and instead of cutting pages, he was busy cutting up bodies. Mobile clinics, evacuation points, medical stations, hospitals. Faces under chloroform masks. Endless numbers of them. … The glitter and clatter of pincers and scalpels: dipped in alcohol, then blood, then alcohol, then blood. ~Pg. 131
Many of these stories have not appeared in English before. And their style is a clear departure from the hefty, grand sagas that Russia was known for previously. This is a special collection of well-curated tales that English readers are lucky to now be able to enjoy.
Many thanks to Overlook Press for the review copy.
Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: Overlook Hardcover (April 18, 2013)
Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.7 x 0.9 inches