Breaking Stalin's Nose is a brief, heavily illustrated middle grade novel about life in Moscow during Joseph Stalin's dictatorship in the 1950s. Author Eugene Yelchin grew up in the 1960's Soviet Union, unaware of but influenced by the terrible events of Stalin's reign. Breaking Stalin's Nose is (as an afterword explains) his attempt to "expose and confront" the fear that was the legacy of Stalin on the Russian people.
Breaking Stalin's Nose is told from the first-person viewpoint of young Sasha Zaichik, who lives in a communal apartment with his father, a state police officer, and 46 other "hardworking, honest Soviet citizens." Sasha idolizes Stalin, and wants nothing more than to join the Young Soviet Pioneers. However, on the eve of Sasha's triumph, his father is arrested. Over the next 24-hours, Sasha learns unsettling things about his family and his country, and also learns that his life will never be the same.
The most powerful thing about Breaking Stalin's Nose is Sasha's utter naïveté. Readers will immediately understand things that pass Sasha right by, such as the betrayal of the neighbor who informed against his father to get a better room in the apartment. And, like me, they'll feel sorry for this poor, deluded boy, who genuinely believes that if only Stalin himself understood what was happening to Sasha's father, he would intervene.
There's a surreal quality to Breaking Stalin's Nose, one that increases steadily throughout the book. Sasha's teacher is almost cartoonish in her propaganda-spouting and blatant manipulations of the students. Sasha himself sees a couple of strange visions (one involving a talking, smoking, Stalin's nose). After that, a scene in a closet with a State Security lieutenant is cloaked in a mist of unreality. At one point, I wondered: "is this all going to turn out to be a dream?" But I think it's just Yelchin's way of conveying Sasha's struggle to cope with the crumbling of the reality that Sasha has believed in his whole life. It's also a way to make the bleakness of Sasha's situation bearable.
Yelchin does a nice job of describing setting and events in detail without slowing down the pacing of the book. Like this:
"Everyone in the kitchen stops talking when my dad comes in. They look like they are afraid, but I know they are just respectful. Dad swoops me off the radiator and carries me through the kitchen, nodding at everybody. His overcoat is coarse and smells of snow." (Chapter IV)
He slips in quite a bit of information about what life was like under Stalin's regime (and likely under any totalitarian regime), without being heavy-handed. This works because he shows things from Sasha's viewpoint only, and Sasha barely even sees them. Like this:
"I take small bites of the carrot to make it last; the carrot is delicious. When hunger gnaws inside my belly, I tell myself that a future Pioneer has to repress cravings for such unimportant matters as food. Communism is just over the horizon; soon there will be plenty of food for everyone. But still, it's good to have something tasty to eat now and then. I wonder what it's like in the capitalist countries. I wouldn't be surprised if children there had never tasted a carrot." (Chapter III)
Yelchin is an artist, and Breaking Stalin's Nose is heavily illustrated with black and white pictures (not in the vein of Brian Selznick's books, but more so than the occasional illustrations seen in most middle grade novels). The illustrations augment the story, adding atmosphere to Sasha's apartment, and giving a face to the various authority figures. The images occasionally add humor (Stalin's boot-wearing nose is quite memorable), but more often pathos. The end of the book, which finds Sasha standing in a long line in the cold, with the line wending its way across several pages, is particularly strong.
Breaking Stalin's Nose is a quick read that leaves a lasting impact. Although it's about a dark time in Russia's history, the book contains just enough lightness to keep modern-day kids reading. Breaking Stalin's Nose also contains enough depth to really make kids think. Highly recommended. Breaking Stalin's Nose was one of the Horn Book's Best Books for 2011 and was a 2012 Newbery Honor book.
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co. (@MacKidsBooks)
Publication Date: September 27, 2011
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher
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