“I felt trapped, like I’d been thrown into a training pen with hungry wolves, not at all sure the wolves were muzzled.”
A Snapshot in Time
Perhaps one of the most remarkable, and appealing, aspects of Lara’s Gift is that it is set in 1914 Russia and there isn't a whisper of war or conflict. It would not have served the story to include it, yet, with the world poised on the brink of WWI, and with the Russian Revolution only three years away, here we are on a lovely estate in a snapshot of time. Much historical fiction is set around conflict and war, yet I know children who avoid war stories, who long for windows on the past that show them everyday life--people who are different but at the same time not that different from themselves. They want to time travel to these places and do so with a good book.
The forest all in gold and purple clad;
The wind-sough's whisper in the treetops breezing
The brooding sky with swirling vapor sad,
The virgin frost, the sun's infrequent glinting
The hoary winter's distant ominous hinting.
The setting is more than a picture, it is a character in the story. O'Brien captures this moment in Russian history with rich descriptions of church bells, icons, superstition, sleighs, fur-lined capes, champagne, and caviar. The world of the estate, the forest, and even the wind and snow frame and permeate the story.
This is the sort of book that teaches culture and history subtly. I would urge you not to neglect the Author’s Notes as O’Brien takes some liberties with culture and tradition, though not beyond its stretching point. There is great potential here for classroom discussion about historical fiction writer’s choices.
Stories that seamlessly incorporate other literature such as myths or poetry offer the reader caviar when they are already enjoying a feast. O’Brien does this with a sprinkling of Pushkin’s poems. Besides a delightful addition to the story, it is an excellent opportunity to introduce the poetry of Russia’s most famous poet, Aleksandr Pushkin.
As I discussed in my last post, multicultural literature affords a wonderful opportunity to incorporate foreign languages. Lara’s Gift is an excellent example of how an author can incorporate lodestone vocabulary (mother, father, yes, no, etc.) as well as words set in context that need no translation. Naturally, there is a good glossary. These words lend authenticity and spice to the story. In addition, there are many words in English that will build vocabulary for children--and adults. O'Brien even slips in a French sentence: J’aime c’est chiens plus que tout. You will too, by the end of the book!
Ta-ra! Ta-ra! the bugles blow.
Up since dawn, the hunters sit
their horses chafing at the bit'
the borzoi tug the leash to go. --Pushkin
By now, you are asking, yes, but what about the dogs? Right! Lara’s Gift is a coming of age story, but it is also very much about the borzoi. O’Brien captures their dancing feet, curly hair, and almond eyes, as well as their intelligence, keen sense of the hunt, and significance in Russian society.
|Annemarie O'Brien with her borzoi!|
It should be noted that a portion of the proceeds from Lara’s Gift are donated to the National Borzoi Rescue Foundation (nbrf.org), and the International Wolf Center (wold.org). This book would also dovetail splendidly with a visit to a kennel or wolf rescue.
"Trust my gift, I kept telling myself. It rang through my mind like a pealing bell in a blinding blizzard leading me home.”