Thursday, September 15, 2005


The Star of Kazan, by Eva Ibbotson. I read a review of this book more than a year ago. I often save reviews, but not this one. I don't recall a thing the review said, but it must've been good. I jotted down the title, and, finally, early last week it arrived on my doorstep.

(It came in a box with a large assortment of other literary delights. Embarrassingly large. I ripped through the cardboard, stashed the contents under my side of the bed, and dismantled the box, hurriedly stuffing it and the wrapping material in the recycle bin, which fortunately was already on the curb awaiting pick-up — all traces gone, before J-F returned home from work.)

The Star of Kazan has all the classic elements of a classic children's tale, and then some:
  • An orphan foundling
  • Eccentric professors
  • Horses (Lippizaner, no less)
  • Pastries (Viennese, of course)
  • Aging chorus girls
  • Fabulous jewels
  • Castles (dank)
  • Gypsies
  • Crippled dogs
  • Boarding schools (severe and punishing)

Perhaps most importantly, it features a cast of kindly characters with imagination and dreams, and a love and respect for truth and books. And some villains who are pretty nasty. What's not to love!?

This is an adventure showcasing courage in the face of great adversity.

In brief (from School Library Journal):
Abandoned as a baby, Annika is found and adopted by Ellie and Sigrid, cook and housemaid for three professors. Growing up in early-20th-century Vienna, she learns to cook and clean and is perfectly happy until a beautiful aristocrat appears and claims to be her mother, sweeping her off to a new life in a crumbling castle in northern Germany. Annika is determined to make the best of things, and it takes a while for her to realize that her new "family" has many secrets, most of them nasty.

It seems to me that the best children's books feature orphans. At the very least, the parents are out of sight. What child doesn't sometimes wonder what it'd be like if their parents weren't their real parents? These stories allow kids to explore the idea, taste the freedom of it, while giving them control to come to their own conclusions about their condition.

The point of this story, succintly expressed in regard to a horse: "People belong to the people who care for them."

The title alludes to the name of a jewel, about which there is some mystery and for which there is a quest of sorts. I'm not convinced it's the most appropriate title for this book, but it does have a marvelously exotic flavour. It hardly matters.

The story was somewhat, but not entirely, predictable — though I doubt it would be tranparent to a 9-year-old — and I kept turning pages regardless. It's so lovingly told.

What I love best is that none of Ibbotson's inhabitants are one-dimensional caricatures of good or evil. They are morally nuanced. Very few decisions are black and white or to be taken lightly. For example, "Disobeying one's mother was difficult... But what if it had to be done?"

One of Annika's friends destroys the music professor's treasured and very expensive harp, for the greater good, of course. I shed a tear when Stefan admits to the deliberateness with which he acted, and Professor Gertrude assures him he did the right thing.

Even our story's villain, acting despicably and valuing the superficial, is shown to be capable of love; the deeds are the result of misplaced priorities and loyalty to tradition.

The language is simple but rich, conveying a different culture and time, while explaining to young readers the nature of spas and Swiss bank accounts.

My hardcover edition has nice black-and-white illustrations by Kevin Hawkes, but, frankly, they do nothing for me — the text paints far richer pictures. I love that a map of central Europe, 1908, sprawls across the inside covers.

The Guardian on Eva Ibbotson, who spent her early years in Vienna and whose parents separated when she was 2, and the experience that informed The Star of Kazan:

Ibbotson, as loving as she is sharp, lives now surrounded by children and grandchildren but her childhood was a recurring search for mothering.

Her mother went to Paris, while she stayed in Edinburgh with her father - a scientist who pioneered artificial insemination - and a governess. Does she remember what her eight-year-old self felt? "I think I expected things to be chaotic. I was always wanting my mother to come, waiting and rushing out into the street, looking at people with hats like hers. Thirties hat, velour, very sort of clochey.

"She was wonderful when she came. But I think it was just too soon for her to be a mother."

School Library Journal Best Book of the Year 2004.
Booklist Editor's Choice 2004.
ALA Notable Book 2005.

This book belongs on every young girl's shelf.
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