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Happy New Year! And here's the first 2013 meeting of the Book Review Club--crank up the woodstove! And don't forget to click the icon above for more reviews.
By Eva Ibbotson
Puffin Books 2004
Eva Ibbotson is my hero. She published her first middle-grade fantasy at age 50, and by the time she died at 85 she’d done twelve of them, along with seven books for young adults or adults.
Before this I’d only read The Secret of Platform 13. (Interestingly, it came out just two or three years before Platform 9 3/4 gained fame. Asked if she thought JK Rowling had cribbed from her, Ibbotson said kindly, “we all steal from each other,” or words to that effect.) (I can’t find the quote.)
Although Platform 13 is wonderful and is among Ibbotson’s most celebrated works, it didn’t blow me away as much as I’d expected. On the other hand, whether because of my mood or the season or some astrological influence, The Star of Kazan hit me right where I live. Published in 2004, six years before its author’s death, it is the work of a master.
Ibbotson was born in Vienna in 1925 to Jewish parents, and her family prudently made its way to England in the 1930s. The Star of Kazan takes us to an ideal Vienna, before World War I. It’s a child’s dream, painted lovingly from the food to the parks to the Lipizzaner stallions. But it’s an adventure, not a travelogue: her twelve-year-old heroine, Annika, has a deep-seated yearning that takes her away from lovely Vienna, to the brink of disaster and back again.
Annika is a foundling, raised in a fond but odd adopted household consisting of three siblings, all professors, and their kindly but no-nonsense cook and housekeeper. Annika grows up learning to cook and keep house, but also tutored by the professors in their fields of art, music, and science. She goes to school, has friends and good neighbors and a pleasant routine broken by the occasional treat. One of the neighbors is an extremely old woman she visits regularly, a former music hall star who clings to a trunk full of costumes and the reproductions of jewels she sold when fame left her behind.
Despite her idyllic life, Annika dreams of her unknown mother, whom she imagines as a beautiful aristocrat searching the world for her lost daughter.
Imagine her joy when just such a woman turns up at the professors’ door and sweeps Annika off to the north country and an ancestral, moated pile of house called Spittal. (Okay, first hint—this is not Barbie’s dream home.) There, she finds mysteries that she refuses to be troubled by: the missing portraits and carpets, the demoralized family and servants, the decaying farm, the fact that her mother keeps promising some wonderful event that will improve all their lives.
Probably the most admirable of Ibbotson’s feats is the fact that the reader spends more than half the book watching the circumstances become increasingly Dickensian, and yet we completely believe it when this otherwise smart, canny child refuses to catch on. It’s the richness of detail that does it—by the time the glamorous mother shows up, we have thoroughly lived Annika’s wonderful life, and we know that she’ll give it all up—and more—for the knowledge that her birth mother loves her.
And it’s the voice: a third person narrator who never departs from a child’s point of view. Here, for example, is our introduction to Annika at age 12:
As soon as she woke, Annika opened her attic window and looked out at the square. She did this every morning; she liked to see that everything was in order, and today it was. The pigeons were still roosting on General Brenner’s head, the fountain had been turned on, and Josef was putting the café tables out on the pavement, which meant it was going to be a fine day. A door opened in the ramshackle little house on the opposite corner and her friend Stefan came out and set off across the cobbles with a can to fetch the milk. He was the middle one of five flaxen-haired boys, and his mother, Frau Bodek, was expecting a sixth child any day. She had said that if it was another boy she was going to give it away.
One paragraph in, we know that Annika likes things orderly and routine, she’s not a snob, and she pays attention when mothers talk about giving away their children. Stay tuned.
I might just mention that the Puffin paperback in my possession is enlivened by the Kevin Hawkes cover and illustrations. Hawkes is from Maine. Naturally.
I’ve only just gotten started on Ibbotson’s books, and I’m pumped. Next up: The Ogre of Oglefort.
Dear FCC: I bought this book with my very own money, because Kevin Hawkes was at the Bangor Book Festival signing books and I liked the cover.