Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, 2011) is a lighthearted look at a serious time in Russian history. From the other books, I reviewed this week about Pakistan child slavery and the Sudanese civil war, I have had a heavy week reviewing difficult subjects. Breaking Stalin’s Nose, on the other hand, is a completely fictional story, but it still rings true.
Breaking Stalin’s Nose takes place during the Stalin era in Russia, during which time the secret police were told about anybody who was going against Stalinism. The main character in the story the narrator is a young boy (Sasha) whose mother was American but is now deceased and whose father works for the police in Russia. Sasha is incredibly proud of his father and how his father works for Stalin. Sasha cannot wait until he can become a Soviet Young Pioneer the next day in school so he can follow in his father’s steps.
However, things quickly change from good to bad. His father is inextricably arrested. Sasha cannot make sense of why his father, a loyal Stalin supporter, has been arrested. He wants to continue his life, become a Soviet Young Pioneer, and go back to how things are. But things are quite strange, and at school the next day, one thing leads to another. Now Sasha himself is under suspicion!
The book is quite serious, and yet it’s not at all. Let me explain. The subject matter is serious. Although I’ve been exposed to world history, I was not quite aware of just how bad things may have been during Stalin-era Russia. This book portrayed families reporting on each, neighbors reporting on neighbors (for selfish reasons), and children being indoctrinated in their classrooms.
That said, the novel is incredibly funny and a bit exaggerated. It is short, and although I’d put it solidly in the middle-grade reader category, it is an easy and accessible read, even for children who may struggle with reading. This is a book in which Sasha, in the book, doesn’t know what’s going on but the reader can tell a bit more about what is coming. This unawareness of the main character makes it all the funnier.
I think it’s an important book for kids to be exposed to because it does showcase a new era that is unfamiliar to contemporary children. How much do we take for granted our freedoms?