“They had fed him these sinister thoughts dressed up with noble phrases . . . It was only once they’d settled deep inside you that they grew and grew, and started to suck away at your soul.”
These lines from the novel The Raven’s Children by Yulia Yakovleva, translated from the Russian by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, follow a magical realist passage in which a Soviet boy, Shura, learns that the Stalinist propaganda fed to him for years has all been lies. He vomits out the lies, in the form of large worms that writhe and wriggle away. He reflects that the worms have been “lurking” in him, “gnawing away inside him, inside everyone.”
The thought that his father could be a spy.
The thought that it was some sort of mistake when his mother and brother were taken away in the dead of night, in a black car driven by secret police, and Shura was thrown in an abusive state-run orphanage.
Until now, Shura has only been told that the “Black Raven” (a euphemism for the police cars) took his family members. Shura has been told that he is a “son of the enemy.” Shura has been told to “be grateful that we are teaching you a useful profession” while performing forced labor—and then treated as invisible, after he escaped state custody and became a Leningrad urchin.
No one even sees Shura now, except other people like him. Trucks, carts, policemen, and a whole kindergarten have passed right through Shura.
Through it all, he has maintained the belief that there was a mistake, and that the mistake can be fixed, if Comrade Stalin can be informed.
But recently Shura wrote a letter to Stalin, only to see it loaded into a bag of the exact kind children sewed at the orphanage—and burned.
And Shura has been gently taught, by fellow invisible relatives of “spies,” that there are no mistakes. The state is arresting innocents on purpose. The state is deliberately confiscating and reeducating people’s children.
“They took their children away and fed them some mysterious slime, gave them new names, dressed them in identical clothes. They muttered the same words to them over and over, until their heads were filled with the same thoughts spinning round like an old record . . .
“It wasn’t good, honest, intelligent people that the Raven needed. He needed humble servants. Children who had forgotten their family and their past. Children who believed that the Raven was their father. That the Raven was the wisest leader in the whole world.”
Once he learns all of this, Shura bravely sets out to rescue his brother Bobka from an orphanage—one of several daring acts that Shura manages despite his trauma.
Dark? Oh, yes. The Raven’s Children takes me about as far as I care to go, and then some, into an orphanage that shames, bruises, and exploits children—and into a city where neighbors turn on neighbors as “infiltrators,” “saboteurs,” “vermin.”
The Raven’s Children takes me deep into a society where propaganda gnaws so long and hard on psyches that, when Shura and a friend go to play in a train yard—dreaming of the places the cars may go, as I used to near rural highways—they glimpse human beings padlocked inside large freight wagons. And they think the imprisoned humans must be soldiers on a secret mission.
Later, when a concerned man assists Shura—a crowd pressing to see the famed polar explorer Ivan Papanin has bloodied his nose—Shura’s sister grows so worried that she makes her brother regurgitate the ice cream the man buys to comfort him. The stranger’s generosity is not “ordinary.” He may have slipped in some poison!
So complete is everyone’s belief in the state, and their suspicion of one another, that an unkind state and a kind individual seem impossible to fathom.
Somehow, characters in The Raven’s Children offer the goodness, bravery, and even hope that I need to spend time in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. Shura exhibits an amazing yet believable resilience, which seems due partly to naivete and partly to growing up in such grim surroundings, which make him difficult to shock. Shura keeps going, and while his story is fiction, history tells us that children like him did just that in the Stalin era.
A note in The Raven’s Children says that the author, whose grandfather escaped a state orphanage, hopes to stimulate discussion of such realities between survivors of Stalin and their descendants. The note explains that many survivors have stayed silent about their horrific ordeals.
The novel shows, however, how crucial it is for all to acknowledge not only that the tyrannical police state existed, but also how it prevailed for so long. Humankind must examine this history so as to recognize when it threatens to repeat itself.
Upper-middle grade and YA readers who have not themselves experienced trauma have everything to gain from reading this book—even entertainment, as they follow Shura’s hijinks along with his hardships. Light moments are well placed and help to make Shura relatable. His story can read as an adventure novel, and through it, readers can inhabit a hero facing down fear.
An obvious readalike for The Raven’s Children is the Newbery Honor book Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin. The two novels portray strikingly similar experiences at a more and less challenging reading level, respectively, and form the beginnings of a text set. Their overlapping thematic elements invite close reading and comparison.
Readalikes for The Raven’s Children set elsewhere include the novel I Lived on Butterfly Hill, about a girl surviving the Pinochet regime in Chile, and nonfiction accounts The Diary of a Young Girl and The Girl with the White Flag, which depict young lives in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam and the Battle of Okinawa, respectively.
We all need to go there.
The Raven’s Children is a gift to readers prepared to meet a dark corner of their world, unvarnished but not without its peculiar, enduring joys.
- Reviews of The Raven’s Children at Booktrust, Starbust Magazine, Readings
- Interview with translator Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp at Manchester in Translation
Avery Fischer Udagawa’s translations from Japanese to English include J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 by Shogo Oketani, “House of Trust” by Sachiko Kashiwaba in Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction—An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories, and “Festival Time” by Ippei Mogami in The Best Asian Short Stories 2018. She is the International and Japan Translator Coordinator for SCBWI.