Breaking Stalin’s Nose. By Eugene Yelchin. Henry Holt. $15.99.
My Brother’s Shadow. By Monika Schröder. Frances Foster/Farrar Straus Giroux. $17.99.
There Is No Long Distance Now: Very Short Stories. By Naomi Shihab Nye. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.
There is nothing light, amusing or distracting in these books – they are for young readers wanting a serious, thoughtful and in many ways depressing view of the world around us, or the world that was around us. Breaking Stalin’s Nose, set in Soviet times, is the story of 10-year-old Sasha Zaichik, who is approaching the long-awaited day when he will join the Soviet Young Pioneers and become “a reliable comrade,” in accordance with one of the organization’s laws. The laws also say he shall act in accord with his conscience and criticize shortcomings. So they say. But those are official rules. In his real world, Sasha finds things going distressingly wrong as he throws a snowball that breaks a classmate’s glasses, then accidentally damages a bust of Stalin at school. And all this happens after the worst thing of all: Stalin’s secret police show up in the middle of the night and take away Sasha’s father, who nevertheless tells his son, “It’s more important to join the Pioneers than to have a father.” The neighbor who coveted the apartment where Sasha and his father lived, and who thus filed the report that led to Sasha’s father’s arrest, is told, when he asks about Sasha, that “the state will bring him up.” At school, as the requirements of Soviet life inexorably close in on Sasha, his doubts and fears grow, until he has a frightening surrealistic encounter with “Comrade Stalin’s plaster nose…smoking a pipe!” Sasha must decide how to live, which means whether to live, for he is given a chance to betray others – or be imprisoned himself. The book ends with him waiting, with a very slight glimmer of hope, for a chance, perhaps, to see his father again, but with his own future very much in doubt – and those of several of his classmates having turned very grim indeed. Eugene Yelchin’s first novel, based loosely on the history of the land where he was born, is filled with his pictures (he is a painter and illustrator), and they are at least as chilling as his words, producing a book in which all the choices are poor ones and a young child’s life is very grim indeed.
It was the depredations of World War I that set the scene that brought Stalin to power in Russia, while in Germany and the rest of Europe the war swept out old empires and old power structures, leaving behind fear, uncertainty and leadership vacuums that sowed the seeds of another world war a mere 20 years later. As Yelchin revisits his country’s past, German-born Monika Schröder revisits that of the nation where she was born and grew up, telling the story of 16-year-old Moritz Schmidt and his older brother, Hans, in My Brother’s Shadow. The Schmidts are a family divided: Moritz’s father died in the war, his brother still fights in the conflict’s last days, and his mother, deeply disillusioned with the monarchy and the barely adequate rations on which the family must subsist, has become a socialist – as has Hedwig, his sister. For his part, Moritz becomes a journalist, and soon finds himself reporting on the injustices that have radicalized his mother and sister – and falling in love with a girl who is both a socialist and Jewish. And then the seriously injured Hans returns, as determined to try to preserve the old order, or at least replace it with an alternative authoritarian one, as other family members are to overthrow it in favor of democracy. The book proceeds through the end of the war and the start of the yet-unnamed, yet-unorganized movement that would later become National Socialism and usher in the terrors of the Nazi era. But readers know this only through hindsight – the characters in the book, swept along on the tides of history, have scarcely any idea of where they are going. As Breaking Stalin’s Nose gives a sense of the claustrophobic and frightening world of Soviet Russia, so My Brother’s Shadow portrays an earlier time in which a nation and people, defeated in a long and viciously bloody war, face a future they cannot contemplate and hope – vainly, as we now know – to make better than their past.
And are so many lives so much better in the 21st century? As difficult and often unpleasant as the books by Yelchin and Schröder are to read, Naomi Shihab Nye’s There Is No Long Distance Now is just as fraught with unhappiness – for all that it is a 200-page collection of 40 very short stories rather than a novel telling a single tale. Individual sentences from individual Nye stories clearly show the overall mood of the book: “It was easier to die if you didn’t have family members to worry about at that exact moment.” “Now no one was happy. The children of the American soldiers, missing their parents, weren’t happy. The children of the British soldiers, celebrating birthdays without their dads singing to them, weren’t happy. The Pakistani kids, now dead, weren’t a bit happy.” “Her father wrote better than he talked, sometimes. So sometimes it wasn’t bad that he was far away.” “The headline on a rack of Austin American Statesman newspapers said, ‘110 Die in Baghdad Bombing.’ And Andy had to stop walking for a moment and place his hands over his ears. Could anyone else hear it? He felt as if he heard screams from the other side of the world.” The story from which this last quotation comes, “Thoreau Is My Partner,” concludes with words that could equally well describe the rest of this book about the interconnectedness of modern people and modern misery…and also describe the depths of sorrow, worry, anger and hurt explored in the books by Yelchin and Schröder. Nye’s words are: “Live each season as it passes… Well, what else could anyone do? Live the future? Live history? He crossed the street.” Young readers who endure any of these books – and reading them, short as they all are, does require endurance – will find themselves wondering what they themselves can do about their own lives and their own world. Hopefully, even if all they can do is cross the street, they will spare a glance back for those who must remain on the other side.