Thirteen-year-old Marya has no recollection of life in St. Petersburg before Lenin came to power. Her parents, however, have told her many stories of their aristocratic life before the Russian Revolution. Now they are considered enemies of the people, simply because of their family origins. Papa may no longer teach at university, and they weigh carefully what they say in public. Despite these precautions, one night policemen come and arrest Marya’s parents, leaving her and her seven-year-old brother, Georgi, to fend for themselves.
With nowhere to go, the children move into a neighbor’s apartment. Mr. and Mrs. Zotov are not very hospitable in spite of the fact that they have taken nearly all of the valuables from Marya’s apartment. Marya visits the local prison and learns that her mother is being sent to Siberia and her father to a work camp. Determined to reunite her family, Marya and Georgi make the bold decision to walk to Siberia to find their mother. Along the way, they meet many challenges that would be insurmountable for adults, never mind two children. They brave harsh conditions, severe hunger and unfriendly people before they reach their destination.
Young readers who demand realistic stories may very well scoff at Marya’s and Georgi’s truly “impossible journey”. Their survival is nothing short of miraculous, which seems out of place in a story that purports to be historical fiction. On the one hand, Whelan’s book presents the economic and political conditions of Russia after the Revolution in a manner easily understood by grade school children. On the other, it romanticizes pre-Revolutionary Russia and the life of the nobility while omitting the sufferings of the common people. That said, Marya’s fierce family loyalty and willingness to make whatever sacrifices her loved ones need make her an admirable heroine. Whelan’s presentation of the life of the indigenous peoples of eastern Russia also adds much color to the story.
Jennifer Minicus is a wife and mother living in Ridgewood, NJ.