Laurinda’s Verdict: Treasure
As you might suspect, given the title, 2012 Newbery Honor Breaking Stalin’s Nose is set in the USSR during the 1950’s. Our main character, Sasha Zaichik, is very excited that he will get to join the Young Pioneers; his father works for State Security and will be the one to induct him at a school assembly. However, Sasha’s life is thrown into disarray when his father is unexpectedly arrested during the night. Sasha runs to his aunt’s like he was told, only to have her husband tell Sasha to get lost. After a cold night spent in the boiler room, Sasha heads off to school.
What was supposed to be a happy day for him is now fraught. Sasha is constantly worried that someone will find out about his father’s arrest. Eventually, he is sent down to the basement to retrieve the banner for the Young Pioneers assembly. While bringing it upstairs, he bumps into the statue of Stalin, dislodging its nose. Fear of the consequences causes him to hallucinate Stalin’s nose talking to him.
When his class is called to answer for the crime of damaging the statue, one of Sasha’s classmates, who believes his parents are already imprisoned, claims that he did the damage, hoping to be reunited with them. After some hijinks, the class bully, whose parents were previously arrested, frames their teacher for the crime.
State Security first tries to recruit Sasha as a mole and then attempts to send the boys to an orphanage. Sasha runs to the prison to attempt to see his father. While in the multi-day queue, he meets a woman who offers her son’s cot. The end.
The author grew up in Soviet Russia and this infuses his work. He perfectly captures the sense of paranoia pervading society; he also traces the enthusiasm, and later disillusionment, of the main character. No one in the USSR was safe from the secret police. A neighbor turns Sasha’s father in to get the pair’s better living space; another classmate frames a hated teacher to get her removed from power, etc. Although we don’t see Sasha become too bitter, he is transformed from a blind little parrot of good indoctrinated values to a child who begins to see through the propaganda. The author creates some very poignant – and depressing – moments. My favorites, if you can call them that: The parents of the classmate hoping to go to jail to see them were previously executed; Sasha’s mother, an American, was executed and didn’t die at the hospital like he was told. So on and so forth. Combined with perfect illustrations, Breaking Stalin’s Nose presents a moving, grimly amusing, yet historically accurate portrayal of the 1950’s USSR.
I highly recommend this, particularly to fans of historical fiction. Mid to late elementary school or early middle school would probably have the most interest, though the beautiful illustrations and plucky main character make this well worth reading for other ages.