The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson is a wonderful old-fashioned story. The cover of the edition that I read includes a NY Time blurb "with echoes of Frances Hodgson Burnett." Perhaps it was the power of suggestion, but I could really see these echoes myself (particularly of "The Secret Garden").
The Star of Kazan tells of Annika, an early 20th century foundling discovered as an infant by the housemaid and cook for a family of Viennese professors (three eccentric siblings). Annika is raised like a daughter by the housemaid and cook (Sigrid and Ellie), and gradually comes to be treated as a niece by the three professors. She works as a servant for them (expected to make herself useful), but also receives Christmas gifts, and a special treat every year on her "Found Day." Annika is also much beloved by her friends from the neighborhood, especially the timid bookworm Pauline and the stalwart Stefan, middle child in a large, struggling family of boys. Annika even befriends the elderly aunt of her wealthy neighbors, offering friendship and attention to a very lonely woman. All in all, Annika has a happy, contented life, secure in her place in the world.
However, Annika has one weakness. She fantasizes repeatedly about the mother who gave her up at birth, imagining her mother appearing on the doorstep and loving her. And lo and behold, one day a grand and beautiful lady appears, and says the magic words "my darling, darling daughter--have I really found you at last!" She whisks Annika away to Northern Germany to the family estate, a crumbling moated castle fallen recently on hard times. There Annika meets her spoiled half-brother Hermann, her self-effacing cousin Gudrun, and the half-gypsy stableboy, Zed. And that's where her adventures really begin.
I did unravel the plot in this book long before Annika did, but I'm not sure that 10-year-olds will piece it all together ahead of time. And despite this, I really LOVED this book. The details are perfect, from the warm kitchen in the Professors' house in Vienna to the gaps in the walls where paintings used to lie in the family castle in Germany. The characters are extremely likable, especially Annika's friends, Zed, Stefan, and Pauline, and her fiercely loving foster mother Ellie. Even the quirky professors, who only gradually come to appreciate Annika, display bravery and loyalty when it's needed. My favorite line in the book (page 268) is from Stefan, who tells Zed that "People belong to the people who care for them." This book has adventure and betrayal, Gothic suspense and grand gestures of bravery. But in the end, it's about what makes a family. I highly recommend this book. Happy reading!
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.