A World War II story, this time told from the perspective of a besieged Russian boy…
Boris has never been more tired, hungry, or cold in all of his life. And he is worried, too – worried that this dreadful war will never end, worried that the horrid Nazi soldiers that are camped around his city will soon penetrate it, worried that some day soon his sick mother will die. But his worries do not keep him from his duty; every day he goes down to the canteen, collects two rations worth of soup for his mother and himself, then returns to his home. Often times he is joined by Nadia, his neighbor and closest friend.
But one day, his mother declares that he will evacuate from Leningrad to a safer place. Horrified, Boris goes immediately to Nadia so that he can discuss this development with her. But he finds her dead.
As Boris’ world shifts and changes, will he be able to survive? Or will he be crushed with sorrow and despair?
Boris’ mother is very worried for Boris, and wants desperately to get him out of the city before the Germans capture it. Boris, however, feels that this would be an act of cowardice. He also refuses to reach safety by abandoning his mother, when he is her last protector. Although she persists and insists, Boris steadily refuses. Towards the end of the story, Boris finally opens up and pours out his heart to his mother.
A thousand thoughts whirled in Boris’s mind as he lay with closed eyes beneath the blankets. But this time they were happy thoughts; care and fear and sorrow had faded for ever.
He had talked for ages with his mother that night. He had confessed what he had never dared to mention before – he had told her about his dread of crossing the ice in the lorries to die as his father had done; then they had talked about Nadia. After that it was not difficult to make Mother understand that there was no need for him to be sent away. Now he no longer sulked like a troublesome child, but reasoned like a man.
‘I shall stay in Leningrad, so that I can look after you.’
Mother had thought for a bit, but not for long.
‘Perhaps you’re right, Boris. We shall see what Uncle Vanya says in the morning.’
So they would stay together. That was right, for in war everyone had need of each other. Only if they stood together in hope and faith could they survive the horror of war. [pg. 140]
When Boris reads Nadia’s diary, he comes across several philosophical statements which I disagree with, but which he found to be magnanimously true.
Boris’ thoughts turned to Nadia and the words she had written in her diary: ‘Freedom only comes when everyone is happy.’ [pg. 117]
Of course, it is impossible for every single person to be happy – different people have different beliefs, different ways that they think the world should be run. Communists could never be happy with freedom (as libertarians define it), so for Communists, freedom must be non-freedom (which is when they are happy). Nevertheless, Boris later reflects on how true this statement of Nadia’s was.
One thing stood out more clearly than all the others: how much Nadia had found to love in the world. She could forgive anyone anything. ‘Why not – surely no one has made himself what he is.’ [pg. 111]
While it is good (wonderful, in fact!) to forgive people for the wrongs they have committed against us, we shouldn’t forgive them because they ‘couldn’t help it’. We should forgive them because we have the hope of being forgiven by God for our own sins. But it would seem that Nadia does not believe in God, or at least she says she does not, and she writes doubtfully about whether there is a heaven after we die. When she finally does die,
Boris never knew how long he stood on the stair landing. People walked backwards and forwards past him. Doors opened and shut. An old woman hobbled down the stairs. She was carrying an ikon with a picture of the Holy Trinity. She was clutching the stump of a candle. Was she going to burn it for Nadia and her mother. Why all this fuss, thought Boris – if you were dead you weren’t there any longer. [pg. 93]
When Boris finally has a full meal, he “said a prayer of thanks for his full plate, although he was a bit doubtful if God would hear it, for no doubt he had lots of more important prayers to listen to because of the war.” [pg. 124]
When Boris cooks a piece of meat to give to his mother, he thinks that “it was a kind of magic medicine, which would cure his mother and make her strong again, so that he wouldn’t have to be sent away.” [pg. 137]
When Boris and Nadia sneak out of the city onto the farmland, the author says that “they left behind them the witch’s cauldron of explosions and flames which was their city.” [pg. 44] (????)
He later has Boris think that the soldiers’ barracks are “just like a witch’s cave.” Again – ?!?
At the end of the book…
That was a day that Boris would never forget. Even on the way to the station with Uncle Vanya it was evident that dying Leningrad was not going to die after all. Everyone seemed to be walking more erect, as if they had swallowed some magic potion that had given them new power. [pgs. 143-144]
Nadia comments that one day she wants to be a doctor. Previously, her aspiration had been to be an actress.
Three lies are told, one to a parent, and two to government workers. They are not necessary to save lives.
A woman exclaims “Dear God in Heaven!” in a very serious situation. It could be considered a form of prayer.
Conclusion. There are definite problems in the story, but Boris is still and interesting and informative peek at Russia during World War II.
Review © 2013 Laura Verret