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Tales from Mother Russia
We’re back from a few days of rest, travel, and so much family, with yet another double post — always, as the year draws to a close, the double posts, because the good books just keep piling up. Today’s books in many ways have nothing in common — one historical fiction, absolutely realistic despite some stylistic flourishes that point to fairy tales, and the other contemporary fantasy. One is set in Russia and Sweden and England and a few points in between; the other in only a few square blocks of Brooklyn. One stretches over years, even decades when the framing narrative is considered, and the other takes place over three nights — although they are long nights, it’s true.
So what ties these two — Vassa in the Night and Blood Red Snow White — together? They share a mythologized love of Russia. They grow from Russian fairy tales, in one case because the protagonist has written a collection and in the other because everybody’s favorite wicked witch, Baba Yaga, is running a murderous convenience store that entraps our intrepid heroine.
Neither of these is a portrait of the true Russia, but both of them demonstrate the deep love affair people have with Russia, the fabled Mother Country, regardless of actual Russia, the political and geographic entity making front page news.
Let’s start with the more literal love affair — with Russia and with a Russian woman — Sedgwick’s Blood Red Snow White.
Now look, I have an affair of my own to confess first: my tumultuous, tempestuous, on again-off again love affair with Sedgwick’s writing. The low point was probably Midwinterblood (damn rabbits). The high point? It’s hard to say, but there’s enough good happening in this new/old offering to make it a serious contender both in terms of the author’s output and potentially in terms of Printz recognition. (Side note: if this does get a nod, it would be Sedgwick’s fourth time recognized. The man is talented AND prolific.) Interestingly, this is a novel that improves upon acquaintance; my notes are littered with minor but definite concerns and quibbles, but the rosy glow of memory had this at the forefront of the year, and the quibbles were largely easily forgotten.
Originally written and published in 2007 in the UK, this is an interesting little novel in many ways. It’s also sort of an odd fit for a US readership, most of whom won’t be familiar with Ransome’s famous children’s books. (I was, but only because in 1986 I went to England and spent all my money in a book shop near the Thames a family friend took me too. It remains one of the best memories of my entire life.) But what Sedgwick plumbs here is not the Ransome of the Lake District sailing and sibling adventures — no, this is the younger man, enamored of Russia, believed to be a spy by both sides but mostly just an idealist with interesting friends and Communist tendencies who happened to be in many of the right places to make connections and pass information.
As he has done in many of his most critically successful novels, Sedgwick plays with narrative conventions to great effect. The story is told in several styles — a sort of fairy tale prologue to the main narrative, drawing on Ransome’s own early collection of Russian tales; then a beautifully written third-person section that breaks down a single evening into a looping series of flashbacks and memories leading to a momentous decision; and finally a first person narrative, full of historical errata (perhaps too much? There were moments that seemed less about Arthur’s voice and more about stuffing detail in; this is definitely the low point of the novel). It’s a dizzying array of styles, each one executed well; indeed, that first, metaphorical history of Russia is superlative.
And of course all these stylistic bells and whistles tell an unexpected and fascinating tale, so there’s that. It’s a slice of Russia and the Revolution we don’t often see; it’s not about the Tsar and his family, and it’s also not about Trotsky and Lenin, although they are central figures. Instead, through Arthur and through Evgenia, and especially through what seems to be a genuine love on Sedgwick’s part for Ransome’s (romanticized) Russia, readers are treated to cold and snow and onion domes and anger and hope — and then it all falls apart, neatly echoing Ransome’s relationship with his first wife, shared early on in fairy tale language.
I should acknowledge that in many ways this feels thinner than some of the other great books this year, although it’s not without substance. It’s more that it hews so closely (as far as I can tell, and also per all the lovely backmatter) to an actual historical narrative that it sacrifices some metaphorical and thematic levels, which is what Sedgwick does best — again, witness that first narrative voice. This lack isn’t a flaw, per se; in historical fiction, it’s important to get the history right. But it’s something to note, and something that might break this one, depending on the RealCommittee’s reading and where the conversations have led them.
Let’s just get this right out in the open: I LOVED this one, with that passionate, everyone-read-this-now kind of zealotry. Consider yourself warned.
As with Blood Red Snow White, there is an element here that draws on outside knowledge, this time the tale of Vasilissa the Brave and Baba Yaga. Because I read fairy tales compulsively, I’d read some variant of the source story, so I had vague ideas of what to expect: Vasilissa would be brave, Baba Yaga would be scary but awesome. (Possibly an impression fostered by Maguire’s Baba Yaga.)
Also, the package is beautiful, and while design is, as we’ve discussed, a pretty minor element of the Printz convo for most books, it’s hard not to admire this one. If first impressions matter as much for books as they do for people, this is a novel starting off with some serious advantages.
What I wasn’t expecting was the level of the writing or of the gore. While there’s significant humor at play, there is also a massive amount of bloodshed, which is frequently described in detail. I’d say this teases at being a horror novel, but it’s so clearly a fairy tale more than anything else that it would be strange to label it as horror outright.
The writing here might be the most subjective element. As I said, I loved it — the language is rich, poetic, and grand, but then there’s this mundane prosiness, especially with dialogue, that cuts in. Like salt in a sweet, it’s the perfect play against the richer descriptive language, which is on full display in the interlude chapters. But we read this in our book group, and a number of people — intelligent people for whom I have great respect, usually — said they found this overwritten. I think they are wrong, obviously, but again – subjective. Which means that if this makes it to the table for the RealCommittee (and, let’s face it, gory fantasy so probably a long shot, sadly), I’d anticipate a rousing and rowdy conversation largely focused on the language.
The fantasy aspects are less subjective, and Porter does some interesting work transporting fairy tales to now. In some corner of Brooklyn — “a scrappy neither-nor where no one arrives” — Baba Yaga is running a convenience store with magic, and she tends to behead shoplifters. It’s a terrible business model, obviously, but she doesn’t need the business, and it’s a great parable for how many blind eyes are turned on these forgotten inner-city neighborhoods full of people without much money. Of course something like BY’s can thrive in those corners of cities. And of course Baba Yaga’s magic, lengthening the nights, is hardly felt across the water in Manhattan. Brooklyn itself isn’t much of a character here — the action really all takes place in BY’s and its parking lot — but there’s a palpable sense of place.
I mentioned above that Sedgwick packs too much detail in at times. Fairy tale retellings often have that tendency in common with historical fiction; the desire to adhere to the source can lead to poor narrative decision. That doesn’t happen here; for all the weirdness, some of which it turns out comes straight from the source, it always feels of a piece. Strange things happen, and they make total sense in this senseless, unkind, magical world.
Finally, there’s some nice emotional work happening underneath the magic tasks and solutions; the relationship between Vassa and Erg and between Vassa and her parents, neither of whom are actually present, all play out beneath the surface. There’s a point to the journey, and it’s not to vanquish the witch: it’s to find a home. Is that hammered home a little too pointedly in the last page? Sure. But it’s no less poignant for that.
About Karyn Silverman
Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.
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