Brief Description: When Russian soldiers arrive in his small Ukrainian town, an 11 yo Jewish boy’s life changes drastically even though the adults try to protect him from the harsh realities of Stalin’s regime amid World War II
Historical Era: 20th Century
Date Range: 1940-1941
Original Publication: 2019
Suitable for Grades: 4-7th
Target Audience: Middle Grade
Eleven-year-old Ukrainian Natt is Jewish, studious, non-athletic and speaks five languages. He is the only child in a prosperous family, but suddenly fortunes turn sour after Russian soldiers occupy his small village and his father is arrested. The scarcity of goods and the arbitrary cruelty of the NKVD police force belie the optimistic messages delivered via poster and loudspeaker of the benefits of communism. Natt wins a prize from Stalin for exceptional patriotism at the same time his father is sentenced and deported to a gulag in Siberia for being “an enemy of the people.” Natt notes that “war means that you have to be grateful for smaller and smaller things.”
Eventually Natt and his mother are rounded up along with hundreds of other Jewish and non-Jewish villagers to be deported to Siberia. As Natt witnesses, such is the terror of Stalin’s regime that even the soldiers are afraid of coming up short of their quota of deportees; “We’re not humans anymore. We’re deportees. Deportees are one step below human.” He and his mother both try to maintain cheery facades as their condition deteriorates from ox cart to temporary quarters in a school gymnasium to a hot and filthy livestock railcar. With the help of their friends and an exceedingly clever young woman, Natt and his mother endure the months-long journey until the train arrives at a lakeside station and the passengers are grateful for some time to bathe in the cool refreshing waters. Natt realizes the importance of “holding on to one another when everything else slips away.” We hope this sentiment gives Natt the fortitude to endure the rest of his journey.
This novel is a great introduction for the young reader to the insanity of Stalin’s rule, the horror of prejudice against the Jewish people and the cruelty of relocation during World War II. We observe the situation through sensitive Natt’s eyes, as he slowly comes to realize the true danger before him. The author notes this story is based on the real life experience of one of her teachers. This novel is the first in a projected trilogy; its sequel, A Boy Is Not a Ghost, was published in 2021. Back matter also includes historical background and a map.