Saturday, March 10, 2012

Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin

What happens when people refuse to make choices? When they let the government decide what’s right and wrong? When they blindly follow rules? When they are taught to not think for themselves or disagree? This story explores through the eyes of a child, Sasha Zaichik, what happens in Russia when Stalin comes to power and the people embrace Communism.

Sasha is devoted to Stalin and wants more than anything to be a Young Pioneer, an organization that 10-year-olds are asked by the State to join. He never questions Stalin and follows the rules of Young Pioneers to a tee. He quotes from the book and cannot wait for the next day at school when he will join them officially with his dad, a Secret Serviceman, being the guest of honor at the presentation. When his dad gets arrested on charges of being a spy by a neighbor he is hauled off by the police in the middle of the night. Sasha is sure that there is a mistake and believes his dad will show up at school the next day. The neighbor moves into Sasha’s apartment and Sasha goes to see his aunt to stay with her, but she won’t take him in for fear of being arrested for harboring the son of an “enemy of the State.” Sasha sleeps in the basement and takes off for school the next day still in denial and still thinking that his dad will show up at the Young Pioneer ceremony.

At school, the propaganda machine is alive and well with the teacher making racist comments to a Jewish boy and putting down or mocking students. Sasha agrees with how she acts because it is the Communist Way. When Sasha makes a mistake and accidentally breaks the nose off of a statue of Stalin he knows that he will never be a Young Pioneer. He plans on telling the principal of the school, but hesitates for his mistake is punishable by death. He wants to be honest and do the right thing but honesty gets people killed. Honesty is not encouraged. Honesty is not found in teachers, authorities, neighbors, or children. People are encouraged to lie and turn others in to the authorities. The teacher has all the students write down the names of students that they think broke the statue. When a girl points out she didn’t see it and how can she accuse someone, the teacher bullies her into putting someone’s name down and frightens her by saying that if she doesn’t accuse someone she makes herself look suspicious. Truth does not exist in Sasha’s world. Truth does not exist in Communist Russia.

When another boy takes the blame for the statue being broken, Sasha is relieved until another boy tells him that he saw Sasha break it. When things escalate and Sasha’s world spins out of control he must decide if he really wants to be a part of the Young Pioneers and close his eyes to what is happening to his classmates and teachers at school or reject it.
The point of view from an innocent child makes the story even that much more powerful. It reminded me of the book, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and how the naivete of the narrators make their situations ironic and poignant. Sasha quotes the rules, “A Young Pioneer is a reliable comrade and always acts according to conscience,” right after he has thrown an ice-filled snowball at a classmate that he knows will hurt and that breaks the boys glasses and cuts his cheek. No one in the story acts “according to conscience” except the woman at the end of the book who he meets in line.

The book is a quick read with only 140 pages and illustrated. There is plenty of action and some violence with a boy attacking a teacher and characters being dragged off to prison by policemen. I wasn’t sure about a boy attacking a teacher. Would a fourth grader be strong or desperate enough to strangle a teacher? He tries to create it that way but it still stood out as being out-of-place when I read it. Freedom of speech, making choices, and thinking for oneself are just a few topics of discussion. If planning on using this book as a read aloud, read it first. I’ve gotten mixed reviews on it from other adults. Some might see it as heavy-handed or disturbing in parts. I thought it was a terrific story.

Reading Level 5.7
:-):-):-):-) 4 out of 5 Smileys

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