Sunday, March 08, 2020

The Blackbird Girls

Blankman, Anne. The Blackbird Girls
March 10th 2020 by Viking
ARC provided by Follett First Look

It's 1986 in Pripyat, Ukraine. Valentina lives with her mother and father, who works at the Chernobyl nuclear energy plant. The family is Jewish, and careful not to draw attention to themselves, as people are still very prejudiced against Jewish people. This includes Oksana, who lives in the same apartment building with her mother and father, who also works at the plant. One day, there is some pouring from the plant, and everything is very odd. No one knows what is going on, and the girls are not too worried even when their fathers are exposed to radiation, because the government has told them that the cure is simple-- drinking milk and eating cucumbers. Unfortunately, Oksana finds out that her father has been killed, and Valentina's father has to go to a hospital in Moscow. When the are is evacuated, the residents are tested for radiation, and Oksana's mother is sent away to a hospital. Valentina and her mother take the girl in despite her objections, and plan to get on a train to Leningrad. When only two tickets are available, the mother decides to send the girls. She gives them the name and address of a grandmother Valentina has never met. In flashbacks, we see Rifka/Rita's troubles during World War II, when she was sent away from her family in Kiev to hide from the Nazis, eventually being taken in by a family who became very dear to her. The grandmother takes the girls in, and Oksana is surprised that a Jewish woman lives such an impoverished life, because her father has told her that all Jews are greedy and wealthy. The room in the kommunalka is small, with a shared kitchen and bathroom, but the girls are able to go to school. Oksana does not have to put up with the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. She and Valentina both want to be reunited with their mothers, and both take on odd jobs to try to earn money. When Oksana's mother is let out of the hospital, she is appalled that the girl has been living with a Jewish family, but the mother's new boyfriend is just as abusive as her father was. Eventually, Oksana gets in touch with Valentina and her grandmother, who draw on the grandmother's contacts to secure a safe place for Oksana to live.
Strengths: The details of daily life in Ukraine are fascinating, and apparently there is a Chernobyl  television program(?) around, so some of my students might be encouraged to read this. I liked how the grandmother's story during WWII was woven into this one; it gives a little perspective on how the war affected the country in the years after it. I definitely remember Chernobyl in the news, so it was interesting to get a more personal feel for what it was like to live through that, although the bulk of the book was about living under Soviet restrictions.
Weaknesses: Having Oksana be abused makes it possible to tie the grandmother's past into the story, but it also made the book even sadder. I grew up hearing that Soviets were evil and drunk, so maybe that's why the portrayal of the two abusive men made me wonder if all of the people were evil. Not sure that modern, young readers would make that leap, but I wanted to come away from the book with a more positive feeling about Ukranians, so wished the men had been nicer.
What I really think: Definitely purchasing. The only other book that I know of that is set in the USSR around this time is Standiford's The Boy on the Bridge. Are there some that I am missing? It's a fascinating time period during my own adult life about which I know very little!

Ms. Yingling

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